“Are we homeless now?”: Milwaukee father shares heartache, hope after an apartment building fire

In home fires, the flames and headlines can sometimes overshadow the impact on the lives of the people affected. Jaime was displaced by a fire Saturday afternoon at an apartment building in Milwaukee, along with his wife, Araceli, and their 10-year-old daughter, Lizeth. The fire sent a handful of residents to the hospital. Red Cross volunteers and staff helped during the fire and afterward established a shelter at Ascension Lutheran Church.

Jaime de la mata 43rd St fire April 2018 _ TWOAt the shelter on Monday afternoon, Jaime (above) took a break from filling out a sticker activity book with Lizeth to share his thoughts on the incident – the speed of the fire; the heart-wrenching question his daughter asked afterward; and his appreciation of volunteers and emergency personnel.

Below are excerpts from what Jaime shared in a conversation with Justin Kern, communications officer at the American Red Cross of Wisconsin.

On the fire that started during a restful weekend afternoon:
“It happened before, but those alarms, they were false alarms. This time, it was serious. It took us by surprise.

43rd St fire April 2018 volunteers Ruth Michael

Red Cross volunteers Michael and Ruth call for assistance outside of the apartment building, off S. 43rd St., as impacted residents keep warm in an MCTS bus, at right.

“It was early Saturday, one of the few Saturdays that [my wife and I] don’t work. We just heard someone yelling and the alarm in the distance. I thought it was my phone. Then the alarm starts again, closer. And when I opened our door [to the apartment hallway], I noticed a cloud coming closer to us. I grabbed my daughter, told her to get her jacket, told my wife, I grabbed our keys and we were out.

“I came back to help people, but at that moment, it was incredible, all the smoke. I could see nothing, it was dark and I used my sweatshirt [to cover my mouth]. Since I’ve lived there, I knew everyone around. I was worried. I was yelling, knocking on doors … The whole thing was, 20 seconds, 30 seconds …”

On the uncertain first few hours:
“It was amazing, the help. The police, they were there to do their job. Firefighters, took care of their jobs. The police said to go to the bus, Red Cross will help you. … Before, when I was in the field, watching everything, the smoke, debris. I was cold. …

“I took a seat in the [MCTS] bus and Red Cross were very good to me. It’s an amazing job they all did for us. … The other people, some are sad, but others were treating [my daughter] so nice, talking to her on the bus … it was fine when I saw her.”

On sad questions and hope for what’s to come:
“That first day, it was hard for me. I tried to contain my tears, my feelings.
“Lizeth asked me, ‘Are we homeless now?’ I told her ‘No, no, it was just an accident. I’ve got a job, your mom has a job. You’re alive. Nobody died. We complain about things, all of the time, but maybe this is a message from god. … We’re in the same situation [everyone from the building]. But don’t worry, because something good is coming.’”

43rd St fire shelter Ascension Lutheran volunteer Jasmine

Lunch time at the shelter, served by our volunteers and set up at Ascension Lutheran Church, one of the many partners to help these families during a difficult time.

On his family’s gratitude:
“I’m glad for Red Cross. … They made it so we had a place to sleep, something to eat and help us with our future. No one else is going to do all that for us.
“Red Cross has given the help that we needed. … There were little things, like games to play and a Mickey Mouse [doll]. I didn’t notice, but when I opened her backpack, she brought three waters and three bananas. [laughs] She had the Mickey in there with the things she brought from home.”

Red Cross continues to work with Jaime and his family, as well as with about two-dozen others impacted by this fire. To join our campaign to help families with fire prevention and protection across the county, click here.

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