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Volunteer finds solace in Red Cross response to fatal fire

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We come in contact with people who really, really need help — and the Red Cross just helps them.

Red Cross volunteer Jennifer Winship was at her East Bay home on March 25, just beginning to get ready for her Monday, when she received an urgent text message about an apartment-building fire in West Oakland. "Lar [Bryer] texted the members of our Red Cross team at 7:30 in the morning, letting us know about the fire on San Pablo Avenue," Winship recalls. "Probably because he is the lead volunteer for our Alameda County Disaster Mental Health Team, he already knew that there were confirmed fatalities, or at least that there were suspected fatalities."

Winship, a volunteer with the American Red Cross since 2005, had worked for 20 years as a licensed clinical social worker for Alameda County before recently retiring — making her particularly well-suited to help with the Red Cross response in West Oakland.

But, at a disaster that cost 4 people their lives and displaced another 80 residents, feeling and being prepared can be two different things. "In addition to people displaced from their homes by the fire, we had family members of possible victims waiting for information — there were just so many people who needed help. Yet these were the people I had served for 20 years in my last position so I had to do what I could to help," Winship says.

The first mental health volunteer to respond, Winship showed up at the First Presbyterian Church, where the Red Cross was in the early stages of establishing an evacuation center, a mere hour after receiving the initial text. She would work there and at the subsequent local assistance center in Oakland for the next 12 days.

Eventually, Winship filled the position of Disaster Mental Health Lead for the Red Cross response to the fire. "But that first day, those of us who were there wore many hats," she says. "There were at least 150 people in the center, and so many of them needed help of one kind or another," Winship says.

Winship is very complimentary of the work done that first day by Lisa Jackson, a social worker from Kaiser Hospital. "Without her, we couldn't have successfully managed all of the people who needed assistance. She and I started by just trying to make a list of who needs meds and who needs other kinds of help. We even had to send a few people to a local emergency room for treatment and care."

One of the people who needed immediate assistance was LeAndre Johnson. "Deborah, the pastor of the Presbyterian Church, brought Mr. Johnson to me," Winship recalls. "He believed that his wife had been trapped in the fire because she had phoned him, saying that she couldn't get out."

So from that moment on, Winship devoted herself to helping Johnson. "We spent 5 to 6 hours going back and forth between the evacuation center and the parking lot across from the warehouse building, which was about one-half of a mile away."

"We were trying to explain to the Oakland police and fire that there might be additional victims who they didn't know about," Winship says. "My Red Cross work early in that disaster was almost like double duty: manage people; work with first responders to alert them to additional victims."

Tragically, Cassandra Robertson Johnson, who LeAndre had married only months earlier, was identified as one of the four fatalities. Winship was by Johnson's side in the parking lot when he received the news from the fire department. "He leaned on the fence there and just broke down," she recounts. "LeAndre's brother, Cassandra's brother, and her extended family were also there. Her brother fell to his knees sobbing when he heard the news, and I provided as much support as I could for them all.”

Johnson tried to attach words to his grief in an interview with San Francisco-based KGO-TV two days later. "I can't get her back, so I'm devastated," he said. "Beautiful woman, two beautiful kids; she was a great ball of joy to be around, great cook," he said.

Winship and Johnson stayed in touch in the first days and weeks after that long, sad day in late March. "He asked me if I would come to a family meeting to discuss what to do with his wife's remains," she says. Of course, Winship went.

Now, almost three months after the fire, it's clear that Johnson's profound loss continues to make Winship's memories of her deployment to the San Pablo Avenue apartment fire especially vivid and especially sad. "We didn't realize how big a fire it was when we first responded," she says, her voice trailing off. "It was pretty brutal."

But if Winship takes some small amount of solace from anything, it's from the fact that the Red Cross was there to help many, many people who were in desperate need of it because of that fatal fire.

"I had a great career, but I decided to leave my job with the county because it had become structured in a way that could make it difficult to help people," she says. "Reconnecting with the Red Cross has been satisfying for me because you come in contact with people who really, really need help — and the Red Cross just helps them."