The last one out

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Currently staying at a hotel serving as an American Red Cross shelter, Yessenia Calderon said she missed early warning signs that her apartment building had been on fire.

Yessenia has asthma and other breathing issues, plus she and her partner Israel weren’t too familiar with their Milwaukee building yet, having moved in just two weeks prior. When alarms began to blare and then a plume of smoke met her at the door on the morning of April 27, she made a panicked phone call for help.

“I called the maintenance manager and said, ‘Hey, I think there’s a fire in the building’ and he was like, ‘The building is burning down, get out!’”

Yessenia, left, and Israel Calderon hold close as they share their story of escape and recovery after a fire at their apartment building in Milwaukee.

Some way, Yessenia knew she had to escape. Through the smoky calamity, she called out when she heard who turned out to be a firefighter.

“I was scared. I’m 46 and I felt like I was 5,” she said, still visibly shaken by the trauma. “‘Hold my hand, I’m scared, I’m scared,’ I said [to the firefighter] and he held my hand and took me down the stairs.”

The fire displaced dozens of people from 28 occupied units of the apartment building in Milwaukee’s Merrill Park neighborhood, blocks from the Red Cross Southeast Wisconsin Chapter headquarters. Red Cross teams have provided sheltering in a local hotel including daily meals for approximately 40 people since the day of the fire. Yessenia said the support from a Red Cross volunteer caseworker and mental health expert have helped her stand tall through the tragedy.

“The Red Cross has been an angel in the skies, basically. They’ve provided us with a home, with food every day … things that, on a day-to-day basis, it’s hard for us to do. The Red Cross has really made it possible,” she said.

Every day, in the Near West Side and throughout Wisconsin, the American Red Cross is there for our neighbors in need. Your support makes our work possible

The couple grew up in The Bronx and recently resettled together in Milwaukee. In mid-April, Israel used most of his first check from a new job on the rent and security deposit for their new place. Yessenia said it has been trying to deal with their now-former property manager and an outstanding security deposit, on top of nailing down a new place with all those added costs and hurdles. The couple hasn’t been able to extensively access their old apartment, with the Goodwill providing clothing including replacement steel-toed boots required by Israel’s employer. It’s tough to even call the power company to switch over her account – “I don’t want to deal with [the fire] again” – and called the recovery more difficult than the escape from the fire.

The affected building in Milwaukee. The Calderons had an apartment a few units from the suspected source of the April 27th blaze.

As the Red Cross works with the Calderons and other displaced residents through the next steps in their recovery plans, Yessenia said she still worries about the frenetic state of it all.

“It’s frustrating … everything is in the air,” she said.

Amid the struggles and bad luck, the couple reminded each other to be grateful. On the morning of the fire, Israel had left the apartment to pick up food. He said he had an ominous feeling as he saw emergency vehicles speeding past him and black smoke in the sky dead-ahead, increasingly clear that they were all centered on his new home – and uncertain what that meant for the woman he loves.

“When I got there, I see the commotion and I start screaming for her. I was about to go in the building, but these fire men said no,” Israel recalled. “She was the last one out. She was lucky.”

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