Gifts of strangers help fire victims recover

Blaze left families homeless and giftless with Christmas near

December 31, 2006|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,SUN REPORTER

A day after a three-alarm fire destroyed her Annapolis home and most of her belongings, Odessa Buford's children sifted through what was left of her belongings.

Besides fragments of charred and soaked photos, there was not much.

But less than three weeks after a fast-spreading fire at the Admiral Farragut Apartments injured two residents and displaced 40, she has hope of getting back on her feet.

Now living temporarily with her son in Etters, Pa., Buford said her church donated items, she is being sent a bunch of gift cards and is in line to get another unit in the complex in January.

It is only part of an outpouring of support for the tenants from the community that made Christmas a reality and recovery bearable.

Maria Benitez, who like most of the displaced tenants is originally from El Salvador, was bolstered by her employer, a local McDonald's owner who posted signs in his six restaurants seeking donations of money, clothing and more.

"It helped us so much, and I am so thankful," Benitez said in Spanish. "But it still does not make up for all we lost." Benitez, a seven-year employee of the West Street McDonald's, is living with relatives who were also displaced and expects to return to an apartment at Admiral Farragut next month.

Gerry Gimelstob, the Arnold resident who owns three Annapolis-area McDonald's restaurants and three in Owings Mills, said he decided to do something as soon as he knew one of his employees had been affected by the fire. He was all the more eager to help when he found out she worked at the West Street restaurant.

"Annapolis has had some racial tension in its past, and this was an opportunity for people all over the community - black, white, Hispanic - to come together," he said. "We have been overwhelmed with all of the help and the appreciation everyone had for her."

The fire, which spread quickly through a 16-unit apartment complex, was brought under control by more than 70 firefighters at 10:30 a.m. Dec. 12, just an hour after it broke out. Twelve of the 16 units were destroyed, causing an estimated $1.5 million in damage, said Capt. Ed Hadaway, spokesman for the Annapolis Fire Department. The investigation into the cause of the fire is still wrapping up, he said, but will likely be released this week.

"I am just thankful that I came out of that with my life, to be honest," said Buford, who uses a wheelchair and was rescued by neighbors and passers-by. "The day it happened, it was just a shock, because we hear of all the tragedies before a holiday, but you never expect it to be so close to home."

Three of the 12 tenant families whose apartments were burned have relocated to new apartments, one family has moved into a new unit at Admiral Farragut and eight families are waiting for openings there, said Pam Martin, spokeswoman for Southern Management Corp., the Vienna, Va.-based company that owns the units.

The Annapolis Fire Department and Southern Management Corp. also joined together to collect donations for the tenants, officials said.

Martin said that at a Dec. 21 dinner they were handed "tons and tons" of toys for Christmas and gift cards. Since the fire, the company and fire department also helped pass along donated furniture, clothing and household appliances to the families, she said.

"It has just been an unbelievable experience for us as a property management company to see the support the community has given to those residents," Martin said. "I have never seen anything like this in more than 30 years in property management."

Jose Marquina of one of the eight tenant families still awaiting an apartment at Admiral Farragut said his and other families were so grateful to have Christmas presents for small children, since they had bought them and lost them in the fire.

"We have received so much help from people," he said in Spanish. "We have not gotten back everything we had before, but little by little things are getting better."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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