2011-02-02 / Front Page

Moving on proves difficult after fire

By Maya Lear Brewer
CONTRIBUTING WRITER


The 40 residents who once lived in this apartment building at Old Buckingham Station are still rebuilding their lives after a December fire. 
Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer The 40 residents who once lived in this apartment building at Old Buckingham Station are still rebuilding their lives after a December fire. Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer The burned-out apartment building at Old Buckingham Station is a daily reminder of how life can change at any moment. For Shanique, the ashes are all that remain of the life she was building for herself and her two children. Family photos, favorite clothing, furniture and even her children’s school textbooks were all destroyed by fire on Dec. 15.

Shanique, who asked to be identified only by her first name, isn’t alone. Thirty-nine other Old Buckingham residents also lost their homes in the fire that gutted an 18-unit apartment building just days before Christmas.

According to the Chesterfield fire marshal, the cause of the fire is still undetermined and remains open for investigation. Reports indicate the fire started on a first-floor patio on the back of the building. The fire spread quickly due to the building’s vinyl siding.


The fire marshal is still investigating the cause of the Old Buckingham fire. Officials believe it started on a first-floor patio. 
Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer The fire marshal is still investigating the cause of the Old Buckingham fire. Officials believe it started on a first-floor patio. Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer Shanique and some of the other affected residents – 11 children, 27 adults and one senior citizen – are struggling to get their lives back to normal. A single mother, she is still “learning day by day of the impact” the fire has had on her and her children, ages 7 and 17. She had no renter’s insurance and estimates her family lost 90 percent of their possessions.

“So many things were impacted by the fire,” explained Shanique, whose family has moved back into the complex. “All the emotions easily come back as we drive by the building. Me and my kids are dealing with the fear of what could happen. My children are having to readjust at school. I am trying to keep my sanity because I have a highly demanding job.”

Shanique is a manager in the health-care industry and also attends college through Averett University.

With generous donations from the Greater Richmond chapter of the American Red Cross, the PTAs at J.B. Watkins Elementary and Midlothian High schools, area businesses, churches and complete strangers, Shanique and her family’s tragedy became an opportunity for the community to rally.

“Christmas for my children was awesome,” she stated. “The community’s been amazing through this whole thing. My kids were so thankful for the gifts. And I was just so moved by the strangers who gave to us. We will never know their names, but they have carried our family on their hearts, and that means so much to me. People are still reaching out to me.”

But Shanique has faced her share of challenges after the fire. According to reports, all displaced residents were offered replacement accommodations at Old Buckingham, comparable replacement units and multiple leasing options. However, Shanique said she has found “no leniency” in Old Buckingham’s dealings with her or other residents she knows.

“I was told that my ‘new’ apartment was supposed to be equivalent to what I had, but it is nothing like what I had,” explained Shanique. “It’s smaller, and it’s dated. I also had to start over on a brand new 12-month lease, rather than just have a continuation of my original lease. Rent’s also due, and I don’t have it. I am hoping that I don’t get penalized… For me, the financial piece is what has impacted me the most. I’m completely out of whack.”

Linda Marano, regional property manager for GSC, the company that owns the Old Buckingham complex and 12 others in the Richmond area, commented via e-mail that “all displaced residents were offered a continuation on their preexisting lease, the option of a new 12-month lease or the complete cancellation of their current lease.”

Shanique believes she’s fared better than some of her neighbors who are still waiting on insurance settlements. Many of them still have no furniture in their apartments, she said.

According to Marano, all displaced residents were offered apartments at Old Buckingham. But one victim, 21-year-old Roxanne Sammon, was told the complex didn’t have enough vacant apartments for everyone. She was offered relocation to a GSC complex off of Staples Mill Road in Henrico County. Sammon declined because her job is in Chesterfield.

Sammon moved into Old Buckingham a month before the fire. She didn’t have renter’s insurance, and her name wasn’t on a lease. Her roommate called her at work to tell her about the fire.

“My first thoughts were that this is surreal,” Sammon remembered. “I was in shock for one or two days afterwards. Everything was a mess. I lost everything. I lost my scooter, which is my transportation for work, all my clothes, my computer. I don’t know how I’m ever going to recover what I’ve lost. All my money is going toward clothes. It’s pretty hard right now.”

Sammon missed meeting the Red Cross on the day of the fire and the subsequent day they were available to assist the displaced. She’s currently living with her mother. Her mother’s employer supplied some clothing for which Sammon is grateful.

She hasn’t had any other follow-up support.

“This is the hardest thing that’s ever happened [to me],” she said, adding that she’s “losing her motivation” as she attempts to recover.

The fire overshadowed two big events in Sammon’s life: her 21st birthday and Christmas. Christmas was especially difficult. Her family went on a preplanned cruise without her because her passport was destroyed in the fire.

“Having to rebuild has been really, really bad,” said Sammon. “Everything that I had put effort into is all gone. I hope this doesn’t happen to anyone else. Next time I’m going to make sure that I’m on the lease and that I have renter’s insurance for sure.”

Attempts are currently under way for Sammon to get connected with the Red Cross to receive further assistance.

Despite the many challenges, Shanique, Sammon and their neighbors were fortunate. Due to the efficiency of apartment staff and Chesterfield firefighters, the residents were rescued without injury and sheltered in the complex’s clubhouse. (Six firefighters were injured during the fire due to icy conditions.) Approximately eight volunteers from the Greater Richmond chapter of the American Red Cross served the needs of both the firefighters and the victims.

“This was the first apartment fire that I’ve ever been to where all the units were destroyed,” explained Red Cross volunteer Ellen Lockhart. “We almost never have all the occupied units destroyed. The severity of the fire was huge.

“For what these folks had gone through, they were calmer than what I would have expected. I think that was largely due to the apartment complex giving them food and shelter right away. It was a level of support that’s usually not there, and I think that helped them.”

According to Lockhart, the Red Cross provides immediate emergency care for those in crisis by providing temporary accommodations, emotional support, comfort kits with toiletries, small toys for children and client assistance cards for food, clothing and medicines.

“Ultimately recovery is up to the families,” explained Lockhart. “We work with each family in helping them face what’s happening, and we help them develop recovery plans.”

Old Buckingham Station assisted efforts by providing displaced residents with accommodations at the Holiday Inn Koger Center and by offering replacement housing in vacant apartments at the complex.

According to Bill Harrison, spokesman for the Greater Richmond chapter of the American Red Cross, even with the provision of temporary housing, this fire has been the most “costly response” for their chapter this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

“Thus far this fiscal year we have helped 115 Chesterfield fire victims with an average of $650 per family, spending about $20,000 thus far in Chesterfield,” stated Harrison. “With Old Buckingham, we spent an average of $545 per family for a total of about $8,000. One thousand dollars of that was for providing food and beverages to the firefighters, other emergency workers and victims throughout the day.”

Of the families affected, four or five families have returned to the complex. Two or three families did not return due to previously planned moves or have moved in with area family members. Still a few others are in hotels.

For further information on how you can assist in continued recovery efforts, to make donations or to volunteer, contact the Greater Richmond chapter of the American Red Cross at 780-2250 or www.virginiacapitalredcross.org.

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