Brown Deer man who escaped apartment fire: “When the Red Cross is here, the magic happens”

Story and Photo By Laura McGuire, American Red Cross

Now a week after escaping a multi-family fire in suburban Milwaukee that left him initially “with only the clothes on my back,” Bradley Epstein took a moment to reflect on the disaster and share his gratitude for those who continue to provide relief.

On April 1, residents were seen hanging outside the windows at a Brown Deer condominium complex, trying to escape from a multi-family fire started on the first floor of a 30-unit building. Epstein is a local musician in the area and brother of Howie Epstein, late bass guitarist with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. When Epstein woke that Thursday morning, he expected it to be a typical day but quickly realized it was far from ordinary.

Bradley Epstein, a week after a fire displaced him and more than 20 other people from a multi-unit residential building in suburban Milwaukee. The musician helped people escape the blaze and called Red Crossers now helping him “saviors.”

“I smelled smoke, entered the hallway and was greeted with even more intense smoke,” said Epstein. “A vacant unit in the building was on fire. The main entrance contained a large amount of smoke making everyone think we were trapped. I heard a lady yelling for help and found her further down the hall and helped her out of the building. I am not a hero. I was just doing what needed to be done.”

Epstein continued, “I saw other residents helping each other find other exits to use since they could only see smoke at the main entrance, some residents were hanging out their windows crying for help. I also noticed very few fire alarms beeping during the commotion. However, the fire department was great at responding to everyone.”

“We were all dazed and confused. My head was spinning. It was a 32-degree morning and I was out of my home with only the clothes on my back and no shoes,” replied Epstein.

Epstein called friends who drove him to a local hotel. Hotel personnel notified him the American Red Cross was there to provide support at the hotel. When hearing that the Red Cross was on site Epstein replied, “When the Red Cross is here, the magic happens.”

The Red Cross has ensured those displaced have had a warm place to stay at a local hotel, as well as food and health, mental health and spiritual care services. They’ve also begun with Epstein and others on the next steps in their recovery, like identifying longer-term housing options. In the first week of response to this fire, the Red Cross has provided more than 300 meals, 69 health/mental health services and daily temporary lodging for more than 20 people.

“From the start of the fire, I recognized the works of the Red Cross – I saw warm buses helping those standing in the cold, hotel sheltering being given to myself and others, meals, snacks, and water were being provided, and I am happy to say I receive a money card to help with incidentals since I have nothing,” said Epstein. 

His belief in the work of the Red Cross has been strengthened by seeing staff and volunteers in action. “I am so grateful for what the Red Cross is doing for me, they are my savior, they are kind, sincere and make me feel comfortable. As soon as I am able, I would like to pay my efforts forward and volunteer with the Red Cross,” said Epstein.

To quote a lyric by Tom Petty, the artist who played for decades with Bradley Epstein’s brother, Howie: “Some days are diamonds. Some days are rocks. Some doors are open. Some roads are blocked.” Epstein can relate his multi-family fire experience to the lyrics of this song, for the day was a rock and the roads were blocked. But thanks to the efforts of the Red Cross he can hopefully look forward to the days ahead when more doors are open and more days are diamonds.  

As part of our “Sound the Alarm. Save a Life” campaign beginning April 8, the Wisconsin Region of the Red Cross is encouraging people to sign up for free fire safety resources for their families and homes. Sign up today at or call 877-618-6628.

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