Wednesday, June 29, 2011

“They genuinely want to help people.”

Tom Sanchez and his girlfriend had just finished dinner in their Astoria, Queens, apartment and were sitting down to watch TV when they smelled smoke. Upon finding it pouring out of their kitchen cabinets and sink, Tom’s girlfriend grabbed their pet cat and Chihuahua and ran down six flights of stairs to the street. Tom, seeing people standing in front of the apartment immediately below theirs and hearing that someone was still inside, decided to go in and help.

Inside, parts of the apartment were in flames, and he was forced to crouch lower and lower beneath the smoke as he waded through a foot of hoarded materials to cross the room. He found the occupant of the apartment, a woman who was reluctant to leave. Tom had trouble communicating with her because she spoke only Spanish; he finally was able to pull her outside to safety.

Once the fire was out, Tom and his girlfriend returned to their apartment to find most of their kitchen destroyed, with a hole knocked through the ceiling and all the appliances ripped from the walls. Although the apartment was not habitable, they were fortunate in that most of their personal possessions, which were in other rooms, were spared.

The Red Cross arrived and offered assistance. Tom and his girlfriend initially declined, thinking they had other places to stay. Soon after the Red Cross relief workers left, however, they decided they didn’t wish to inconvenience family, friends or neighbors, and called the number on the flyer the Red Cross had given them. They were immediately provided with short-term housing at a local hotel. The next day, a caseworker at Red Cross headquarters advised them on how to work with a city agency to arrange longer-term temporary housing.

Tom said he felt lucky to have survived the fire since there were no smoke detectors in the building. He believes if it had started after they’d gone to sleep, they might not have awoken in time to escape.

Before the fire, Tom thought Red Cross provided assistance only to people affected by international disasters. He was surprised that Red Cross responders arrived at his building within minutes and that they were so supportive. “They genuinely want to help people," Tom said. "They weren’t trying to put a stamp on a piece of paper and move on to the next client. That was so unexpected and refreshing.”

Tom Sanchez, Queens, NY

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