Smoke and soot blanketing several apartments in Dunedin, Florida, turned a routine Saturday into one of chaos and fear. Elizabeth Wooten, one of the tenants, remembers it all too clearly: “What a hectic, scary day! But we were all so fortunate because different waves of heroes—first, the police and firefighters; and second, the Red Cross volunteers—helped me and my neighbors face our challenges.”
April 30th was the start of another weekend for Elizabeth Wooten; her husband, at work; and son until she smelled smoke in their apartment. Elizabeth’s subsequent phone call to 911 triggered a series of events that she recalls vividly.
“We were told to get everyone out of the building and wait for the rescue workers. We frantically knocked on doors and shouted for everyone to leave.” Confused, shocked neighbors rushed out of buildings, not knowing what to expect next.
Ms. Wooten relayed that no one even knew about the onset of the blaze until her emergency call; some neighbors weren’t home. Smoke alarms were either dismantled or nonoperational, and the fire alarm system didn’t sound either.
Elizabeth averted a catastrophe by preventing a neighbor from entering her apartment. “I stopped my neighbor just in time; her key was in the door. Little did we know at the time that her apartment was the scene of the fire.”
“First responders appeared within minutes, evacuating additional buildings and extinguishing the blaze raging in my neighbor’s bedroom, which is directly above mine. It appears that incense burning on top of her bedroom television set started the fire. But we were all very fortunate, especially the elderly. No one was hurt—or worse. One of the firemen said we were lucky because my neighbor’s bedroom door was shut containing the fire.”
She continued her story by saying, “But if it weren’t for that first wave of heroes, who knows what would’ve happened! Billowing black smoke and glass were everywhere. But I felt safe. My neighbor’s apartment is unlivable. But at least, thanks to the rescue workers, the other apartments have been restored by lots of airing out, washing, and cleaning.”
Restoration of property is one thing. Restoring lives is another. And for Elizabeth and her neighbors, that’s the role the Disaster Action Team (DAT) played that day . . . and continues to play.
Delayed by snarling traffic, the DAT finally arrived, springing into action. Nicholas Reis, the DAT lead, and four other volunteers (John Veneziano, Cassandra Fisher, David Smith, and Cassidy Nealis) provided water and snacks; daily hygiene products; prepaid financial assistance as needed for food, shelter, and clothing; applicable medical attention and counseling; and critical information about renters’ insurance information, which few tenants had.
Frustrated, Nicholas later confided in me: “Our goal is to be on the scene immediately after authorities tell us the disaster is ‘under control.’ That way we can assist distressed neighbors and lessen their trauma. When we arrived on the scene, everyone involved was waiting under a tree. They needed to be reassured.”
The DAT’s commitment to alleviating suffering impressed Elizabeth: “The moment the Red Cross pulled up, I saw wonderful, kind faces. Those first few moments made everyone believe it was going to be okay because these people cared enough to come guide us. They even double-checked our places to make sure each family had a safe home to return to.”
Elizabeth relayed how the mood changed dramatically—especially for the children. “I couldn’t believe it. One minute there are frightened, upset children huddled under a tree or wandering aimlessly. The next, they’re enjoying snacks and juice—and smiling. Some volunteers are even giving the kids stuffed Mickey Mouse dolls.”
“You should’ve seen it. What they did for our kids was nothing short of miraculous.” She continued: “I looked over at my son and a little boy who had just lost everything. They had such a big smile and it brought hope.”
Ms. Wooten also commented that Nicolas, an ex-EMT, was comforting, patient, and kind. He spoke with all residents before approving their return to their apartments.
“He personally responded to my medical condition: I suffer from asthma and I was complaining of chest pains and a pounding head,” said Elizabeth. “I thought I was going into shock. The ambulance arrived and the EMTs checked my lungs, which were clear. Nicholas gave me that peace of mind, which was most important.”
Even after the DAT packed up, the Red Cross has continued its mission of alleviating suffering for these tenants:
• Elizabeth and her family stayed at a motel overnight, just to ensure that her apartment was safe, given her medical condition. To show their appreciation, the Wootens have since donated any additional prepaid living expenses back to the Red Cross.
• Elizabeth and her son, who has special needs, have had follow-up counseling in order to ensure they wouldn’t suffer future psychological trauma because of the fire. Counseling is still available if the situation changes.
• Elizabeth and her neighbors have been put on a list to check and rewire all smoke alarms as necessary. In fact, Chris Levine, the Pinellas County Home Fire Coordinator said that they are looking to target that apartment complex this fall. She has also given Elizabeth a contact in Dunedin Fire and Rescue to arrange installation of a smoke alarm in her home.
Elizabeth is indebted to the Dunedin rescue department and especially to the Red Cross.
“The Red Cross showed me all the things I need to do to keep myself and family safe. Because of them, we now have renters insurance. I now know everything you worked for and love can be gone in seconds. They have given me the tools I need to recover and survive. There are no words I can think of that describe how thankful and blessed I am for all the help and support they gave my family. They are true role models for how everyone should be treating each other.”
This story ends on a positive note because Pinellas heroes turned lives around that day. But maybe another hero was Elizabeth Wooten, whose phone call had prevented a major catastrophe.