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At 9:45 am on Sunday, November 4, 2012, the second worship service at Wheaton Bible Church was just beginning. A few miles down the road at Timber Lake apartments, Juana and Jose rangel were asleep in their third-floor apartment, having worked the graveyard shift the night before.
Their son, ten-year-old Christopher, heard the baby crying and woke his mother, Juana, to feed him. As Christopher left his parents’ room, he heard screaming and shouting, “Fire!” he ran to the balcony, expecting to see a fire in the distance. Instead, he was shocked to see that the balcony adjacent to his own was ablaze.
Terrified that his home was about to blow up as fire met gas, Christopher pounded on his mother’s door, screaming, “The building is on fire!” he then ran out the door.
Juana, still half asleep, did not believe there was really a fire but came out to see where her son had gone. She opened her apartment door and called, “where are you, Christopher?”
When she heard sounds in the hallway and noticed a bad smell, she reconsidered. Coming back into her apartment, Juana grabbed her baby and woke her husband, Jose.
When she found ten-year-old Christopher outside, she noticed he was barefoot. “Where are your shoes?” she asked.
“I saw fire, so I ran!” he responded.
Together they went around the building and saw that their windows were overtaken by fire. To keep the baby warm, they went into the management office but continued to watch as their home burned.
“I was in shock,” Juana said. “ As I saw how my apartment was burning, I was crying and crying. ” Juana, who is diabetic, literally did go into shock and was taken by ambulance to the hospital.
Meanwhile, L. Susan Drennan and her boyfriend, Gary were watching television when they heard loud knocking and yelling about fire and gas. They quickly grabbed their winter coats, and Gary ran outside with them while Susan took a split second to think.
“Standing in my living room, I was thinking, I have three to four minutes to get out. I knew if I could ever come back in, it wouldn’t be the same.”
She grabbed her purse, her laptop, and clothes for work. As she ran down the stairs, she passed the firefighters running up.
Twenty-six families—90 people, including 36 children—lost their homes that day.
The damage was extensive. The fire destroyed all the units in the building; most of the contents were considered a total loss. The following hours and days were critical for the nearly one hundred people, who were displaced, in shock, and grieving.
Those affected were quickly surrounded by members of the fire and police departments, representatives of Timber Lake management (Northridge holdings), volunteers and staff from Wheaton Bible Church and Iglesia del Pueblo, the Puente del Pueblo team, staff from Outreach Community Center, and Red Cross workers. Representatives of the city of West Chicago, DuPage county, and School district 33 were also involved.
Together they worked to provide for the most immediate needs. The evening of the fire, all families affected by it had a safe place to stay, either with friends and family or in a local motel, paid for by the Red Cross and arranged by Northridge holdings.
The next day, the relief teams had delivered basic provisions to each family, and Timber Lake had arranged for most of the families to lease a new apartment in the complex. Puente del Pueblo, WBC’s onsite initiative at Timber Lake, began assessing specific longer-term needs, including furniture and document replacement.
The people of Wheaton Bible Church and others in the community responded with an outpouring of donations, and a “store” was set up in the community center, where residents could “shop” for the items that would most meet their individual needs. Over 50 volunteers from Wheaton Bible Church and Iglesia del Pueblo responded to assist.
One of Puente’s roles in the days after the fire was to facilitate effective communication between the fire victims and the various agencies and departments offering assistance. Meetings were held to provide meals and to discuss the actions being taken and expectations for the coming days.
One of the most pressing questions the nearly one hundred displaced residents had was whether or not they would be allowed access to their apartments to retrieve any belongings that had survived. Many people didn’t have their wallets, car keys, important papers, daily medications, or shoes.
Susan recalls the level of anxiety and uncertainty residents felt during the meetings as they discussed the possibility of reentry. “If you haven’t been through something like this before, you don’t realize that there’s no guarantee you can get into the building to retrieve your things—the things that make up your life.”
For many of the victims, language was a barrier, which added to their vulnerability and made communication more difficult. Also, many were recent immigrants who relied on cash and paper documents kept in their homes.
A Brief Reentry
Nearly a week later, the residents were allowed two opportunities to enter the devastated building. For thirty minutes on Friday and two hours on Saturday, volunteers from Puente del Pueblo assisted residents as they quickly and carefully retrieved what they could.
“You aren’t really prepared for a fire-recovery situation,” Susan said. “ There was plywood on the windows and doors, so even in the daytime we had to go in with flashlights. Everything was very damp, musty, and smoky. Everything that wasn’t burned had smoke or water damage.”
Susan remembers feeling like part of a hazmat team, wearing several layers of clothes to stay warm and carrying plastic tubs and boxes. The help from Carlos, the Puente volunteer who accompanied her, was invaluable, she says.
“We prepared this and that and he took them downstairs, so I didn’t have to spend time coming and going. Honestly, I couldn’t have done it without him. Later I found out that he helped a family on the third floor as well. That is remarkable, because that wasn’t easy.”
An hour into the work, it started to rain. Because of the damage to the building, the water came right in on top of them. Susan recalls how strange and surreal that day was—yet how helpful and friendly the residents and volunteers were to one another.
“It was neighbor helping neighbor,” she said. “Many times in my life I have helped other people, but that day I found myself accepting help from others.
In my case, this was twenty years of the stuff you call your life. Seeing it destroyed and sorting through the remains in such a short time—that’s a tough concept to grasp.”
As difficult as that experience was, leaving the building that day was even harder, Susan says. “You know that recovery is over and what you were able to salvage is all you’ll have.”
Because they were so close to the fire’s point of origin, the Rangel family lost nearly everything. “ Our place was totally destroyed. The walls fell down to the first floor, the bedroom walls fell onto our beds.” They were able to salvage one good set of pots and a few dishes but lost all their papers. Their eldest son had been in the process of an important immigration application; he had finished all his paperwork but had not yet submitted the files. All that effort went up in the blaze, as did their cash—what they had saved for the next month’s rent as well as money they planned to send to family in Mexico. Furthermore, their son works in landscaping, and his work season had ended just before the fire, so he won’t have a chance to earn the money necessary to reenter the application process for many months.
“You can live through tragedy,” Jose said as he reflected on these losses, “but in your heart or mind is the thought Why did this happen?”
As the fire was burning, Jose’s first thought was How can we stop the fire from destroying everything?
“It is a big tragedy,” he says, looking back. “I was surprised, afraid, for my children and for us. My children were so scared, crying, astonished. We think God put this in our way to teach us to be prepared. It is not easy for us, but we have to accept what God gives us. After this experience we hope it will not happen again, but only God is sovereign, and he knows.”
Trying to adjust to a new normal is challenging. Although most people’s new apartments have the same floor plan as their previous ones, don’t feel yet like home and they are almost empty instead of full.
Susan says she and Gary are living life with more gratitude now and that the experience has enlarged their perspective. “Families with kids are hugging them more closely now. You think something like this is going to happen to someone else. For weeks before the fire, we were watching hurricane Sandy coverage on television. We had no idea we were about to join them. Now I realize you have to ask yourself What would you take with you? once the door closes you don’t always get to come back in. The most important take away for me was those three-to-four minutes. I had no idea.”
Susan affirms that the most important thing is that everyone was safe and no lives were lost. On the other hand, she says, rebuilding your life takes time and money, and timely, sensitive help is so needed. She believes that in this respect she and her neighbors were very fortunate, pointing out that it really did take a village to get this job done.
“It was such a tremendous effort between Wheaton Bible Church, Puente del Pueblo, and the Timber Lake management office. They coordinated their efforts for the families who really needed assistance.”
Right after the fire, she said, “we were all the same, sitting with what we had with us—and that’s all. It didn’t matter what backgrounds we had. Puente was the arm of WBC, and together with the Timber Lake management office went above and beyond in getting us to a motel for the first night and then into new apartments and they fought to give us extra time to retrieve our things from our homes.”
“Seeing this experience unfold gave us a compelling reason to attend Wheaton Bible Church” said Susan. She and her boyfriend had not attended before the fire but now attend the worship Service and have visited several of the adult communities.
She adds, “It is important for the Wheaton Bible Church community to know the value of what they did. You mobilized quickly to do a huge job. The leadership said what they needed and the people of the church did what they could. It meant a lot to the families. It meant a lot to us. Sometimes important things go unsaid, but it is important to know we appreciated it. You treated us like family—with a “warm hug” level of involvement.”
She was amazed by people like Carlos who came out on a Saturday morning to help strangers they had never met before—and said they were happy to do it.
“They didn’t do it for the credit but for God,” she added. “That’s why we decided to go to Wheaton Bible Church. It was amazing and if an English Bible study starts up in the clubhouse, we’ll be there.”
The impact of Christ’s body working together was felt not only by those who lost their homes but also by the other agencies that responded. A Red Cross staffer came up to Matthew McNeil, director of Puente del Pueblo, the night after the incident and said, “This is amazing. You guys are a church? We never see this kind of response. It is so fantastic, the way you are responding to this crisis.”
Later, a public-relations representative for the DuPage county office of homeland Security and emergency Management also approached Matthew to share how astonished everyone was to see a church and social-service agency (Puente del Pueblo and Outreach Community Ministries) working together so effectively.
Juana Rangel also gives thanks to the community that pitched in to help the people who lost their homes, “especially Puente del Pueblo, the Red Cross, Timber Lake management. I really am grateful. Everything I have now is because of their provision.
“In the beginning,” Juana said, “I felt sorry for myself because I had lost my things. But now I think God permitted this in my life because he had something better. I have received much blessing—from friends, from people in my company, but more from this community. I can see clearly who is with me and who is not with me. After this, I cannot see smoke or even steam in the kitchen without fear. But this will eventually go away. We give thanks to God that we still have life.
“Many have helped us at Puente del Pueblo so we are not left alone with nothing. Thank you for your company during this and for telling our story. We are grateful to have life.”