The American Red Cross prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.
Story and Photos by Patty McLaughlin/American Red Cross
Patty McLaughlin has recently become a volunteer with The American Red Cross of the Mid-South in Memphis, Tennessee. On Tuesday, February 25, 2015, Patty went on her first fire call with veteran responder David Compton. At the end of the day she wrote this story describing some of what she saw and felt.
Never have I been inside a house that has just burned nearly totally to the ground. For some reason, perhaps curiosity, hopefully for a more compassionate reason, I wanted to go. I wanted to help. So, I recently became a volunteer with the American Red Cross in order to provide assistance in such disasters.
One does not go to the scene of a house fire alone, or in one’s personal car. Instead, we meet a partner and travel in a Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) or another vehicle well marked with Red Cross logos. I was taken on my first fire call by David Compton, the Disaster Acton Team Captain who was “on call” for today. David is a soft- spoken, gentle soul who treated the people who had just lost their home beautifully.
The cause of the fire, according to the young man we met at the scene, was a malfunctioning electrical outlet. It started sparking and set the kitchen and ultimately the whole house afire.
When the fire broke out, he did the thing we are always warned not to do: he went back to get something. While in the house he passed out, but fortunately, firefighters arrived in time to rescue him.
After his rescue, he was in the hospital for several days, and today was his first day to go back to the house since it burned. He discovered that several valuable things had been stolen, one of which was the water meter. What was worse, water was still flowing from where the meter had been ripped out of the plumbing, and the water appeared to have been flooding the house for several days.
I was so impressed that he took matters into his own hands. First, he found a wrench and a paper cup. Then he got down on his hands and knees at the main water cut-off out by the street, scooped out water until he could see the valve, and turned off the water with the wrench. I’d have been frantically calling MLG&W, our water company. Finally, he dried his cold hands (the temperature was in the mid-20s) and got into our warm ERV, where he and David began to complete the necessary forms to receive disaster assistance from the Red Cross.
He received a cash card with sufficient funds to pay for basic clothing, food, and gas. It provided sufficient resources to allow him, his girl friend, and their young child to make it through the next few days and, hopefully, to get “back on their feet”.
We walked around this demolished house—wet, still smelling of smoke, and other unidentified, unpleasant aromas—and I was in jaw-dropping awe of the total horrible mess. Thank goodness I had worn boots (but Uggs unfortunately). The couch and upside down table in the living room were barely recognizable. Everything else that had been furniture was ashes. If it were my own home, I am quite sure I would have cried.
After we had finished all the paperwork and provided a grateful young man with the Red Cross assistance appropriate for his situation, we headed back to the offices of the Mid-South Red Cross. Before we got there, however, David received another call regarding a fire that was nearby, so off we went. This time the fire trucks were still there; the man of the house came out to meet us as we arrived.
The man was bewildered and upset. He and his wife have three young children, and all of them had gotten out of the house safely and were currently staying with neighbors. According to the man, someone had tipped over the space heater in a bedroom, and it caught the bedding on fire.
Once again, David took out the necessary forms and began to garner the information needed in his professional yet kind manner. Just as in our first case of the day, he provided them with a tax-free cash card to use for their immediate necessities. He also provided various lists of places where they could purchase clothing or other necessary items inexpensively or receive donations of clothing, and even made arrangements for them to stay two nights in a nearby motel room.
One moment I will never forget is when the wife began to weep quietly in the back seat of the ERV and shared with us that her two dogs had died in the fire. Oh if I could just hug her and make everything all right. At that moment though, I was very proud to be a Red Cross volunteer, doing what we could for this devastated family.
The experience that day was emotionally difficult, curiously interesting, and extremely satisfying. I look forward to the day when, with sufficient training and experience, I can go on a fire call and handle it with as much grace, confidence and kindness as David. What I can do now, though, is purchase a sturdy pair of work boots so that I’ll be better prepared to answer the next call and leave my Uggs at home.