When Fire Strikes: A Volunteer's Story

john larochelle
As we loaded the trucks to head home I saw that all the other volunteers had a smile on their face that mirrored my own.

It was early evening when I received the phone call. There was a fire in Worcester and several families, many of whom had small children, had been displaced from their homes. I quickly changed, grabbed my bag and drove to the Red Cross Chapter in Worcester. Several volunteers from across Central Massachusetts, who are also part of the Disaster Action Team (DAT) and I drove to the scene of the fire. As we approached the scene we carefully drove around the police car blocking the road and the fire hoses crisscrossing the street. Flashing lights lit up the frigid night and the smell of smoke hung thick in the air. A firefighter standing by one of the trucks told us that the families had been taken across the street to a McDonald’s restaurant to stay warm.

Walking into the restaurant, which was very busy I tried to sort out those simply eating dinner from those who had just lost everything they owned. As I scanned the room I noticed two families who weren’t eating anything and were just sitting quietly at their tables. As my volunteers scattered across the dining room to talk to people quickly picked out more people sitting quietly without food in front of them and noticed one woman in particular sitting by herself with her hands tightly clasped in front of her staring into space. Something about this lone woman told me she needed help the most at the moment and I walked over to sit quietly in front of her. I took her tightly clasped hands in mine and she started to shake and sob under her breath as I asked her name. “Maria” she replied (name changed to protect privacy) as I comforted her. As I sat with Maria I don’t remember exactly what I said to her but her sobs lessened and the shaking started t o subside as I held her hand and she explained that her husband was across the street trying to get into their apartment to retrieve some of their belongings. She told me that this was the second time they had lost everything in a fire and that they had only recently been able to buy some furniture to replace what was lost the year before. I sat with Maria talking to her and offered her a cup of hot coffee, which she gratefully accepted. Her and her husband had no family in the area and no place to go. Her husband came back and told us that the fire department could not let anyone into the building to retrieve belongings. I quickly called a hotel and arranged a room for the weekend and wrote out emergency assistance to help them replace lost food and clothing. I learned that they did not have a car or any way to get to the hotel I had just booked for them so I called a cab company and arranged for someone to pick them up and take them to the hotel. As I walked them ou t to the cab with large bags stuffed with blankets, comfort kits and small snacks I paused to hug Maria and shake her husband’s hand. “Take care of them” I said to the cab driver and watched as they drove away.

I walked back into the restaurant and silently watched, answering the occasional question from one of the volunteers, as the other volunteers talked with the remaining families. I saw smiles beginning to show on some of the tired, care-worn faces as families trickled out one-by-one with plastic Red Cross bags clasped in tightly held hands. As we loaded the trucks to head home I saw that all the other volunteers had a smile on their face that mirrored my own.

John Larochelle has been a disaster action team volunteer with the American Red Cross of Central Massachusetts for over four years. John has had a desire to help those in need since 9/11 but only discovered Red Cross Disaster Services a few years ago. As a volunteer John quickly took on additional responsibilities including disaster dispatch, team leader and mentoring roles. Currently John is one of two volunteer counterparts for the Disaster Services Territory Manager responsible for covering all of central Massachusetts. John has provided assistance at numerous residential fires affecting the lives of central Massachusetts residents and has also responded to larger disasters including the Western & Central MA tornado, Hurricane Irene and the 2011 Halloween Snowstorm. He can be reached at john.larochelle@redcross.org.