Thankful to be alive and for the services of the Red Cross 

By Laura McGuire, American Red Cross 

Oscar Balderas and Kisiah Johnson are two long-time residents of the Monona Hills Apartments, and both woke to the sounds of smoke alarms and commotion at 3:42 a.m. on a Saturday morning, March 18 2023, in their respective apartments.

Monona Hills Apartments, photo by Laura McGuire

Johnson called the fire department to confirm that the smoke alarms were indeed a fire warning and not a false alarm. Grabbing her coat, purse, and keys, she went out of her apartment. While walking down the smoke-filled halls, she saw other residents in a dazed state still waking up. She escorted one lady out of the building in a nightgown and another lady who is visually impaired down the stairs to find safety outside as firefighters and police were knocking on doors asking all to exit the building.

The day before the fire, Balderas moved from one apartment to another apartment within the building never expecting the worst to happen. When hearing the alarms, Balderas retrieved his coat before heading out the door and helping others out of the building. “I help. That’s me,” Balderas said. “If I can help you, I’ll help you, but I mean the people that live there are like my family. We’ve known each other for you know, a long time and we just have to help each other. It doesn’t matter what race you are; you have to become one people and I just helped them as much as I could.”

Kisiah Johnson and Oscar Balderas, photo by Laura McGuire

All apartments in the 70-unit apartment building have been evacuated.

The temperature was a blustery 9 degrees Fahrenheit with 15 mph winds making conditions frigid. “It was really, really cold,” said Johnson. The Red Cross was there handing out socks and blankets to help comfort the residents exposed to the cold temperatures.

St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church, across the parking lot from the apartment building, opened its doors for those displaced, serving as a reunification center for residents which turned into a Red Cross shelter.

Newton being comforted by his owner, photo by Laura McGuire

Balderas and Johnson have no family in the area, so for them they were glad to see the Red Cross in action providing comfort and care in their time of need. Both had been through fires before. Johnson surviving a fire in her youth in Chicago. “Things can be replaced,” explained Johnson. “I am just thankful to be alive. I am so thankful for the Red Cross services that they were “Johnny-on-the-spot” so soon after and for all the first responders who helped.” 

Both Balderas and Johnson were distraught, and their adrenaline was running high, but it was clear their attitudes of positivity will carry them through their recovery. They were glad to receive a hot meal, hot coffee, a Red Cross personal hygiene kit providing essentials, and hugs and comfort from Red Cross staff and volunteers.

Johnson was also proud to say, she gave blood to the Red Cross as recently as a couple of days before the fire. While seeing the Red Cross hold a blood drive at her work, she was happy to learn that she was eligible to donate, and she rolled up her sleeve and gave a pint of blood.

When the dust settles for Johnson she hopes to become a Red Cross volunteer and help others.

If anyone is impacted by this fire and needs help please call the Red Cross at 1-800-236-8680.

The Red Cross is always looking for volunteers to provide hope to those in need. Please see our website for more information on how you too and become a Red Cross volunteer:

Red Cross disaster action team volunteer, photo by Laura McGuire

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