Brittaney Mathews was at work on a Saturday afternoon in May when she got an alarming call from the landlord of her Yonkers apartment building.
“He asked if anyone was in my apartment,” she said. Then he told her there was a fire in the building.
A single mother, Mathews had lived on the building’s fourth floor for 2 1/2 years, sharing the space with her 2-year-old daughter, a puppy, and a cockatiel. Fortunately, her daughter was staying with her great-grandmother that weekend.
“I drove home as fast as I could,” Mathews, 29, said. “I was frantic. All I could think about was: There isn’t anyone in the apartment, but I have my puppy there, who I just got like a month ago. He’s only about 3 or 4 months old. And I have my bird there. And I’m scared.”
When she arrived at the building, she asked worriedly about the fate of her puppy, but no one seemed to know. Then one of her neighbors ran up to her.
“She said, ‘They got him! They got him!’”
The neighbor led Mathews to a firetruck where firefighters had her dog.
“He was covered in soot,” Mathews said. “He was black. He’s supposed to be white.”
She was happy to be reunited with her dog, but the news about her other pet was not good.
“The bird sadly passed away,” she said. “They weren’t able to rescue him.”
The fire had caused extensive damage — the building was later condemned — and Mathews and the other residents were told that they wouldn’t be able to stay in their apartments. Unsure what to do next, Mathews was grateful to connect with a Disaster Action Team member from the American Red Cross of Greater New York.
“I had walked away from the scene and went toward where my car was parked,” she said. “We actually saw the (Red Cross) vehicle pull up, saw the guy with the Red Cross vest. We spoke to him, and he took my name down, and probably about 15 minutes later we met him in front of the building with his supervisor. They gave us the location of where to meet them so that we could fill out the paperwork.”
Mathews drove to the nearby Red Cross Service Center, where volunteers were distributing food, water, and personal-care items to the fire victims. When asked if she needed housing for the night, Mathews explained that she had friends and family she could stay with temporarily but would need help finding a new place to live.
“The process was pretty fast,” she said. “They handed me a yellow sheet that I filled out. And they said, ‘OK, that’s all that we need. Just wait for somebody (from the Red Cross) to call you. Someone should be giving you a call this evening.’ And that evening I got a call.”
Though she was understandably upset about the loss of her pet and the destruction of her apartment, Mathews was grateful that she and her daughter were safe.
“Thank God we weren’t home,” she said.
Her neighbor Chipanthony Lamont Lionel was not as fortunate. The 47-year-old, who lived alone, said he was in bed when the fire started on the floor below his. When his apartment began filling with smoke, he grabbed some personal items and went out to the fire escape, where he was eventually rescued by firefighters.
Lionel was new to the area, having moved in only months before, and had no family nearby. He was happy to learn about the Red Cross Reception Center, where Disaster Action Team members offered both physical and emotional support.
“They made things comfortable for that moment,” Lionel said. “They provided water, they provided food, a care bag. They even gave us a list of hotels that we could go to and a cash card.”
They also helped him get into his damaged apartment to collect some belongings.
“Once the smoke cleared, one of the representatives from the Red Cross was taking tenants back to the apartment to retrieve anything that they could, so a few of us were able to grab a couple of bags of clothes or personal items.”
Later, volunteers drove Lionel and other residents to a hotel, where he stayed for a few nights before moving into a shelter until he could secure more permanent housing.
The assistance from the Red Cross was vital, Lionel said. Without it, he would have been in dire straits.
“I would have been on the streets,” he said, “because I have nobody to stay by in Yonkers.”
He’s particularly thankful for the volunteers’ compassion and dedication.
“I’ve never been through this before,” he said. “Overall, my experience with the Red Cross for the first time was, on a scale of 1 to 10, a 10.”
Mathews, who met in person with Red Cross team members the day after the fire, praised them for helping her take the first steps toward rebuilding her life.
“They gave us a (debit) card that I think had about $350 on it,” she said. “They gave us numbers for people to contact. They also gave us a referral letter for DSS (Department of Social Services) to help us get into another apartment because, of course, we were victims of a fire, and it was an emergency situation. And that also is a referral letter for any other emergency services we may need.
“They gave me everything that I needed to start the process of relocating and finding a home.”
Almost everything Mathews owned was destroyed in the fire.
“The apartment was completely black and covered in soot,” she said. “There was water and dirt everywhere.”
Without assistance from the Red Cross, the road to recovery would have been much more difficult, Mathews said.
“I can’t even think what possibly could have happened. I couldn’t even tell you the first step I would have taken. They definitely made it easier.”
If you would like to join the Disaster Action Team, to help your neighbors after an emergency, visit www.redcross.org/gnyvolunteer to learn more.