BY MIKE PERSLEY
On August 27th, Ikechukwu Nwizu was in Atlanta. He was planning to fly home later that evening to his wife and two children at Forest Park apartment building on 9300 Piney Branch Rd. when he got a phone call from a friend. There was an ambulance outside of his apartment, she said.
Maybe my wife collapsed, he thought. He called her phone. He called his son, his daughter. He called the house phone four times. No answer. He called his friend back, and she said “There is a fire, the building is burning.”
The Aug. 27 fire, photo by Nozzle Nut Photographers.
“I need to talk to my wife, to make sure she is alive,” he told her. She searched around the apartment building, looking for people coming out.
About an hour earlier, around 3:20 p.m. Cindy Nwizu returned home from school, changed her clothes, and laid down for a nap. Jacinta, her mother, was preparing food in the kitchen, expecting her son to be home soon.
She went into her bedroom to find her cellphone when she saw smoke. Panicked, she ran into her daughter’s room to find smoke filled through the room. Cindy laid in her bed, sleeping through all of it. There was no fire alarm, no warning.
They tried to escape through the staircase, but found smoke billowing upward through them. They ran back into their apartment and tried to come down from the balcony. By that time, the fire had made its way all the way up to the roof. Their apartment was on the 4th floor, the top story. They held on to each other and shouted for help.
Photo by Tucker O’Brien
“I was calling Jesus!” Jacinta said, recalling the event.
Avoid putting yourself into it. You man have to fall back on the less interesting “said Jacinta two weeks later as she told her story.” Or something along those lines.
Within a few minutes, the firefighters came, pulled up their ladder, and first rescued Cindy, then Jacinta. The fire, however, continued for a few more hours, eventually consuming everything they had.
The fire victims were quickly taken to Long Branch Community Recreation Center, where they were provided by the Red Cross with beds, blankets, and food. In total, seven tenants and three firefighters were taken to the hospital with minor injuries. 27 families, and nearly 100 people were displaced. The fire was said to be caused by an electrical outlet setting fire to a mattress.
Everything is gone
Ikechukwu Nwizu returned from Atlanta early the next morning, the 28th. He arrived at the recreation center around noon and found Jacinta walking around, crying.
“I told her ‘It’s okay. God saved your life. That’s the important thing. The worst could have happened.’,” he remembers.
The question was what now?. “Whatever I left for Atlanta with, that was all I had. Everything is gone,” he says. Since then, his landlord returned him a deposit of $250. The Red Cross gave them $465, which they spent to buy food and clothing. White Oak Middle School, where Cindy attends, gave $100 gift card to Value Village to buy clothes, and Paint Branch High School gave $350.
Photo by Tucker O’Brien
They’ve moved from one place to another, living with friends, hoping that they can find an apartment as soon as possible. Their search has not been easy.
“If you lose a job. It’s easy to get up, go look for a place. But if you lose everything due to a fire, it is very hard. You don’t even know where to start. Even if you are given money. You don’t even know. You can’t even say what is your priority. What do you need first? It’s like a dream,” Ikechutewu says.
One issue is that even when they find a place, they will still need silverware, furniture, cooking utensils, household items, everything.
Montgomery County Health and Human Services promised to pay the first months rent should they find a place, but everything seems outside of their reach.
Further complicating things is Ikechukwu’s legal status. Since 2006, he (and his family) has lived in the U.S. on an F1 student visa, making him ineligible for government assistance.
Photo by Tucker O’Brien
He has been a full-time student, and recently graduated from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County with a Bachelors in Social work.
Under visa guidelines, international students have a year to work inside the U.S until either their visa expires or they go back to school. He was in the process of finding work when the fire hit, intending to work for a year before going back to graduate school.
Locals step up
Some in the Takoma Park area are making real attempts to help. The Long Branch Community Recreational Center held the victims for up to two nights after the fire. The Steve Francis Foundation has worked to give children new school supplies.
The Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington has been very active in trying to collect food, clothing, and furniture, etc.
Victims of the fire have been given near unlimited access to any of the food or clothing the center collects. The center also made a deal with A Wider Circle, an organization that deals with collecting furniture for those in need, to hold any extra furniture they might collect for victims.
“Food is something we really need,” says Joyce Seamens, a volunteer at the center. Also needed are any cooking supplies, such as pots, pans, kettles, and dishes.
Perhaps most importantly, the center is attempting to raise $20,000, or all of the money it raises for September, to the victims of the fire. As of today, they stand somewhere near $4,600-$4,700. To make a donation, please visit their website, http://acsgw.org/ , or send a check to :
Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington
501 Sligo Ave
Silver Spring, MD 20910