Volunteers Help Restore What The Flames Took Away

Northwest  |  December 11, 2021
San Jose resident Lan Mei was slightly injured during her escape. Photo/C.M. Yung.

Written by Katie Chu, Rita Chang
Translated by H.B. Qin
Edited by Maggie Morgan

Lam Mai Nguyen remains traumatized from the haunting memories of her September 5, 2021 house fire in San Jose, CA. Lam Mai sat with her parents who had joined her for dinner that day and her daughter was playing downstairs. Around 5 that evening, the ordinary family gathering took a dangerous turn; Lam Mai’s daughter yelled that there was smoke coming from the apartment and alerted her of a fire and her husband and son immediately called 911. Before there was even time to think, the fire had already reached the front door. 

There was no other choice but to jump from the second floor balcony to escape. The family’s neighbors were waiting downstairs to help them and fortunately, they all safely fled from the flames. Lam Mei and her family were injured when jumping off the balcony, but they were all just grateful to have survived.

The Nguyens are one of several families who were impacted by the fire in the Timberwood Apartments, a low-income complex in San Jose, Northern California. The flames swallowed a total of 23 apartments and displaced 53 survivors.

Several affected families were placed in other condominiums, some were temporarily housed in hotels, and others went to live with relatives. The Nguyens, who live on the second floor of the complex, were one of the worst affected families as their apartment suffered severe destruction; their entire unit was burned down to the ground and only the charred beams remained where the family once called home.

The National Fire Protection Association provided several shocking statistics regarding fires that occurred in 2020. The report indicated that local fire departments responded to an estimated 1.4 million fires resulting in 3,500 civilian fire deaths and 15,200 civilian fire injuries. Property damage, like that  in the Timberwood Complex fire, totalled an estimated $21.9 billion.

The research states that U.S. fire departments responded to a fire somewhere every 23 seconds in 2020, home structure fires were reported every 89 seconds, home fire deaths occurred every three hours and 24 minutes, and a home fire injury occurred every 46 minutes.

What Life Looks Like After Surviving A Fire

Surviving a fire is an extreme type of devastation, an unlikely event that we are on high alert for but never expect to happen to our own families. This type of emergency is traumatizing in nature and those who survive are left with painful memories and many times the burden of starting their lives over.

Many of us do not consider what happens to survivors of fires after they lose their belongings and are sometimes displaced from their homes. The U.S. Fire Administration details the devastating losses that occur and how much work goes into recovering money, belongings, important documents, and securing housing. 

Those that are not covered by insurance (like many people who rent apartments) have the extremely difficult task of making an inventory of all that was lost in hopes of receiving some sort of aid. While some help is available from landlords or big organizations like the American Red Cross, many individuals will need a helping hand from compassionate groups like the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation.

The Timberwood Apartments fire started in the kitchen of a residential unit. Photo/C.M. Yung

Tzu Chi’s San Jose volunteers took action immediately, contacting the affected families in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, and communicated with the apartment managers to arrange for the survivors to receive emergency relief cash cards at the common room of the Timberwood Apartments on October 10, 2021.

The majority of the impacted residents do not speak English, and luckily there were several Tzu Chi volunteers among the 13 who served who spoke Vietnamese and Spanish. Our team was fortunate to be able to bridge the language barrier and connect on a deeper level with those who were in need of assistance. 

Spiritual Belief Comes Full Circle

Lan Mei comes from a five-generation family of Christians, and spirituality has a strong influence in her household. She was very touched to learn that Tzu Chi is a Buddhist organization and thanked the volunteers for their support. 

The emergency state of the fire forced Lan Mei and her family to act quickly, and they didn’t have time to bring any possessions with them when they escaped. The family has been left sleeping on a floor, and she hopes to have foldable mattresses for the children to sleep on; the volunteers have arranged follow-up case care services for Lan Mei to address pending needs.

Tzu Chi’s team distributed blankets for the survivors at the event, hoping to help them find warmth in the cool autumn nights. Volunteers also handed out stuffed animals to children in hopes of providing comfort and beginning a new collection of toys as theirs were lost in the flames.

Blankets were provided to survivors to help them stay warm during the autumn season. Photo/C.M. Yung

Saving Strangers From Suffering

Jully Buitrago and Maria Vidal were among survivors of the fire. After losing virtually everything, they were forced to move from their apartment to a nearby hotel. The two spoke no English, but were able to speak with Tzu Chi’s team with the assistance of friends and volunteer translators and receive financial assistance. 

The majority of the survivors who attended the event were of Hispanic descent and the team needed help in providing translation to assist those in need. Fortunately, teenagers who came with their families were able to serve as interpreters to non-English speaking beneficiaries, helping them collect financial aid for their families and neighborhood. 

Julie was moved by the work of Tzu Chi’s volunteers. She remarked how the assistance will help her family: “The cash card we received enables my husband, daughter and I to go to the doctor’s office, in addition to purchasing our daily needs.”

Finding Connection Through Shared Suffering

The cash card relieves Maria's immediate needs in the aftermath of the disaster. Photo/C.M. Yung

Maria, one of the individuals impacted by the fire, deeply appreciated the dedication of Tzu Chi’s volunteers. She prayed for the health and safety of all the affected families and in addition to offering a blessing for the volunteers. Maria received one of Tzu Chi’s bamboo banks, where she learned about the cycle of compassion that is encouraged by the mementos. 

Maria and other beneficiaries are able to use the bank to save what they can in order to financially assist another struggling human being in the future. Those who attend distribution events are happy to learn of the bamboo bank initiative and are moved to find they, too, can support others one day soon.

Our events often manifest a connectivity that can only be experienced through loving other human beings. These gatherings do not feel like they’re full of strangers, but rather like-minded people who are simply trying to recover from life-altering events and others wishing to help them do so. 

The hearts of volunteers are filled by the exchanges that take place during these events and the meaningful conversations that are had inside these spaces. Our team may be offering support to those in need, but attendees offer a feeling of love, humanity, and gratitude in return.

Teenagers from the affected families assist the volunteers by serving as Spanish interpreters for their fellow survivors. Photo/C.M. Yung

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