Bitseat Getaneh, 17, came to the United States from Ethiopia to study as an exchange student, but the Aug. 10 explosion at the Flower Branch apartments where she stayed on her very first night in the country derailed those plans.
“I went to sleep around 8:45,” Getaneh recalled in a recent Talk of Takoma interview with Senior Editor Eric Bond. “Then I felt hot, and when I woke up the whole room was on fire.”
Officials said that a natural gas explosion in the meter room of Building 8701 was responsible for the blaze that killed 7 people and left Getaneh with third degree burns on 17 percent of her body.
“All I could see was fire. I started running and running, but it was so hard. I started praying to God—please save me, please, please. And then, I don’t know, I just found myself outside the apartment.”
There Getaneh saw two police officers administering first aid and fire truck approaching the scene.
Sara Mussie, a community organizer with IMPACT Silver Spring, also a native of Ethiopia, arrived not long after.
“The morning of the explosion, I got a phone call from [our executive director] Jayne Park,” Mussie said, “and we all went to the location to see what we could do to help.”
Because Getaneh was a minor at the time, Mussie was unable to aid her until her mother flew in from Ethiopia and signed a consent form.
“The parents, they paid to send this girl to school and all the money was burned in the fire,” said Mussie, referring to the funds Getaneh had brought for the tuition exchange students are required to pay in order to attend Montgomery County public schools. “Then the mother had to come, which was another expense. The mother was pregnant and she had the baby here, so that was another expense.”
Bilen Gebrekal, a family friend, helped set up a gofundme campaign for Getaneh, who lost not only her money but also all her possessions in the fire. It has raised more than $19,000 so far.
Mussie said she connected Getaneh with people who could support her with transportation and other immediate needs so that she could still start school on time.
“She’s very strong and she’s come through a lot,” said Mussie. “I thought maybe she would like some books. She asked me, ‘Could you get me an SAT prep book?’ I wish my son would say something like that! She’s an amazing girl.”
But while Getaneh says that her skin is healing, she sees a psychiatrist for the less visible effects of the explosion.
“I can’t sleep at night time,” said Getaneh, but she is optimistic in the wake of such tragedy, calling herself “a lucky girl.”
“God has a plan,” she said. “Everything happens for a reason. I have met so many people around this area and they are so nice. It’s not easy to be alive after that terrible fire, [but] I want [to put] my life on track and fulfill my dream of becoming a neurosurgeon.”