Helping Apartment Fire Survivors Regain Their Footing and Rebuild Their Lives

Northwest  | September 23, 2021
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An apartment building fire in Tukwila County, Washington, on August 17, 2021, claims the lives of three residents. Photo/Hung Wen Chang

Written by Yu Feng Wang
Translated by H.B. Qin
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

Clinton Buston, a resident of an apartment building in Tukwila, Washington woke up before dawn smelling smoke. He responded quickly by calling the fire department and rousing his fiancée, so the two could escape. While he could have been outside the building sooner, Clinton didn’t think about his safety. Instead, he knocked on the doors of every neighboring apartment along the way out …

A Hero in Their Midst

The Maple Crest Apartments in Tukwila, approximately 10 miles from Seattle, burst into flames at about 5:00 AM on August 17, 2021. After firefighters arrived, slippery terrain inhibited their ability to douse the building continuously, and they eventually were forced to let the structure burn down. Residents witnessed their homes turn to ash before their eyes. But far worse than material loss, tragically, three of the building’s occupants lost their lives in the flames.

As one left homeless, Clinton acknowledged his losses, saying, “This home was built by my fiancée and me after a lot of hard work, and we just bought a few household items not long ago, wanting to make the small apartment into a home.” And yet, the destroyed property wasn’t on his mind. Instead, his heart was called to thoughts of his neighbors who died, even though they were people he didn’t know or hadn’t even met. 

If not for Clinton’s knocks on the doors of his neighbors, more people might have lost their lives in the inferno. But, even after a few days, he was still haunted by his failure to rescue those three. Everyone called him a hero for the incident, but Clinton said he didn’t feel like a hero; he felt like an ordinary person who did what anyone should do.

As neighbors, we should help each other, and if we can, we should do what we can to help those around us, whether we know them or not.

Clinton Buston
Maple Crest Apartments Fire Survivor

Tzu Chi Seattle Volunteers Reach Out to Help

Tzu Chi Seattle volunteers visited the site of the fire the very next day, on August 18. The smell of smoke remained in the air, and little puffs were still emanating from the ruins. The apartment building, which used to be a four-story structure, was left with brick walls that survived the flames on both sides and a few construction elements on the first and second floors. And yet, the overall sight made onlookers, including Tzu Chi volunteers, sigh with empathy for the apartment’s former occupants, now displaced and suffering.

Tzu Chi Seattle volunteers mobilized to launch disaster aid without delay. Less than a week later, on August 24, a group of five volunteers visited the Tukwila Community Center to register disaster survivors, aiming to also ascertain their immediate needs.

Four days later, on August 28, a team of 20 volunteers went to Tukwila Community Center to distribute blankets, scarves, masks, and cash cards to survivors of the fire in need of assistance. While providing this emergency aid, they also helped shoulder the uncertainty care recipients faced in their current situation.

A team of 20 Tzu Chi Seattle volunteers is on-site for the apartment fire disaster relief distribution on August 28, 2021. Photo/Tzu Chi Seattle Team

An Attentive Ear as Care Recipients Share Their Stories Brings Added Comfort

Richard Ruby, who lived only three apartments away from the fire’s ignition point, didn’t have time to get his ID card as he rushed to the emergency exit. Without an ID, a temporary ID made applying for assistance and insurance even more challenging.

I’ve never been through anything so difficult like this before, and no one has ever expected to lose everything in their life overnight. But I still think I’m lucky; my sister is willing to provide me with temporary housing and assistance. However, the cost of rebuilding my life is still unimaginably high.

Richard Ruby
Maple Crest Apartments Fire Survivor

As Richard held a Tzu Chi cash card in his hand, he expressed his thanks repeatedly, “Every little bit of help is invaluable.”

Disaster survivors are touched when learning about the Eastern tradition of pressing the palms together to express gratitude, universal connection, and equality. Photo/Tzu Chi Seattle Team
Volunteers explain that Tzu Chi makes its eco-blankets from recycled PET bottles. Photo/Tzu Chi Seattle Team

Although Richard, personally impacted by the fire, was there to receive aid, he was also a great help to Tzu Chi volunteers during the distribution. Since he’s fluent in Spanish, he spoke with other Hispanic residents while everyone waited for Tzu Chi’s aid. Then, he stayed behind at the distribution site to translate for Spanish-speaking care recipients. 

Richard also translated Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s letter of consolation for the disaster survivors, serving as a communication bridge that announced a cascade of care and blessings. And, care recipients who received his help in expressing themselves to Tzu Chi volunteers were most grateful.

Henry Calel is the breadwinner of his family. Seeing his living circumstances gone after the fire, it’s not surprising that he felt distressed. His lack of fluency in English made it difficult for him to communicate with Tzu Chi volunteers. Yet, thanks to Richard’s help in translating, Henry’s frown dissolved as he was able to voice his thanks:

I’m looking forward to using the cash cards issued by the volunteers to buy food and clothing, to support my family’s basic needs, and I value every little bit of help.

Henry Calel
Maple Crest Apartments Fire Survivor

But human suffering was not the least of the story. In addition to the loss of material things, pets with families for years were missing because of the fire. Alan and his wife considered several dogs and cats as family. On the night of the fire, he told his wife to escape from the building with two dogs, while he tried his best to find their terrified cats in the smoke-filled apartment until firefighters pulled him out and took over the rescue effort themselves:

One of the firefighters put on an oxygen cylinder and went back inside the apartment to search for one of our cats; he even used the oxygen mask on the cat to save its life, which touched us deeply. We are praying that the other cat has escaped the fire.

Alan
Maple Crest Apartments Fire Survivor

Although the road to recovery is long and complex, the couple felt fortunate that their three pets and their daughter’s family, who live in the same building, are safe. And, it’s a long way to recovery for all residents of this apartment building now in ash. Still, they’re striving to take care of each other along the way, with help from outside. 

Sherry Lawton, who managed the apartment building, also came to the distribution site. She was there to help Tzu Chi volunteers contact the residents who were not there, hoping to help everyone impacted by this catastrophe receive the resources they need, find a place to live and regain their footing.

Tzu Chi Seattle’s logistics volunteers quickly verify the details on cash cards and supplies to be provided. Photo/Tzu Chi Seattle Team

Tzu Chi Seattle volunteers accomplished this mission within ten days of arriving at the disaster site. They swiftly evaluated conditions, registered disaster survivors, and distributed cash cards while offering emotional comfort.

Each Tzu Chi disaster aid recipient is treated attentively, with utmost patience and care. Photo/Hsin Chien Cheng
Emotional support is integral to Tzu Chi’s approach to humanitarian aid worldwide. Photo/Tzu Chi SeattleTeam

One can never really know when disaster will strike, as life is unpredictable, making our present conditions impermanent in the long run. However, knowing that others care and are ready to help should catastrophe descend on our lives can be a great source of comfort. Through your donation, you can support our disaster relief capacity and missions. Together, we can provide tangible aid and the pricelessness of genuine human connection to others in their most acute times of need.

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