A call to quell the chaos

By Kay Weeden, American Red Cross

For what felt like the first time all day, Maria Hernandez could breathe.

The American Red Cross staffer on the other end of the phone with Maria would take care of immediate arrangements for her to speak with her husband Johnathan, who was stationed with the U.S. Army at Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri. Maria was relieved to know the call from the Army base was coming any minute. At least she could hear his voice and the couple could start to make sense of the overnight fire that had displaced everyone in their Janesville apartment building. The first thing she said – “I’m OK, we are all OK.”

Maria Hernandez, in a selfie, called the calls set up between her and her husband stationed at an Army base a “blessing.”

“This has been a blessing for us when you suddenly lose all you have,” Maria said of the quick connection to her husband at a military base. 

Through the connected Red Cross work in disaster relief and Service to the Armed Forces, Jonathan was able to call home and set up a call schedule for the next few days. In addition, Maria and Jonathan received financial assistance offered specifically for military members on active duty. 

“The Red Cross is making it happen,” she recalled.

On that first phone call with Jonathan, Maria recounted the events of earlier that early spring morning, before dawn at their home. She was awoken by unruly stomping and muffled voices of the children and parents from the upstairs apartment. Moments later, knocking on a first-floor window. This was unusual at 4 a.m. on a Sunday. Then, jarring fist pounding on her apartment door and someone yelling “Salga! Get out!”

Startled, Maria jumped out of bed and flipped on the light. Thick smoke was billowing under the door, beginning to fill her bedroom. It was clear – their apartment building was on fire.

Maria threw on some clothes, grabbed her phone and keys, and ran outside. She found a frantic scene in the parking lot – people crying and yelling out for each other, huddled against the cold as residents continued to pour out of the building. A crowd started to gather nearby and Maria rushed over. She soon found herself cradling the baby of a family escaping their apartment one by one from the second-story window into the waiting arms of their neighbors below. At that point, the Janesville Fire Department arrived and moved the families well away from the building.  

That was the chaotic scene early Sunday morning, March 28 at Parkview Manor Apartments, a 38-unit building in Janesville where Maria and her husband, Jonathan, have lived for three years. For the past month, however, Jonathan has been stationed in Missouri, completing the 20-week basic training for the U.S. Army Military Police Program. Maria, a full-time dental hygienist student who also works full time, had gone to bed exhausted on Saturday night, expecting to sleep in a little before Sunday church services. 

“I never, ever thought I’d ever be in a situation like this,” she said. “I wished Jonathan was there. He probably would have remembered to grab shoes!”

By 6 a.m., it was evident that they would not be allowed to return to the building, so she called her father-in-law and headed to his home. The Red Cross was on the scene that same morning, attending to the needs of more than two-dozen displaced residents, providing food, temporary housing arrangements plus health and mental health resources. After about 10 days, partners from the City of Janesville and Echo took the lead on temporary housing, while Red Cross continued to help connect the dots with the range of resources needed for those displaced to find more stable footing.

Maria remarked that on the number of things that go out of line after a disaster, how long it can take to get back to normal. Some things will never be the same; sadly, the fire and subsequent heavy smoke damage also took the life of their pet parakeet, a pet Jonathan had a special connection to for years. Maria is presently staying with family, though plans to move into a new apartment with Jonathan once he returns from military training in summer. Through the chaos, Maria is grateful for the connection provided by the Red Cross to her beloved husband, so that they could more quickly get their lives back on track, together.

“They are helping him on his end and me on mine,” she said.

Are you a service member or member of a military family? The power of the American Red Cross Hero Care Network is never more than a click away. Download our free Hero Care App from your app store or by clicking here.

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