A Cardboard BuildingMajor Ed Forster shares another installment of “Others,” stories highlighting actual events that occurred during more than four decades of officership.
It was 3:30 a.m. when our phone rang. There was a “big fire” downtown, and the fire department needed our help. Because it was a hot night, I chose to bring the responders lemonade instead of coffee, along with donuts and some sandwiches.
The raging fire was in a three-story multi-family dwelling made of wood, covered lightly with vinyl siding. It burned quickly.
At the scene, in addition to serving lemonade, I talked with people who had survived the fire and who needed a place to stay.
After arranging emergency housing for the displaced families, I asked the fire chief if there had been any injuries. He gave me the names of two individuals who had been sent to different hospitals in the area.
Although it was nearly 7 a.m. by the time the fire was under control, I decided to go to visit the two people known to be in the hospitals. The lady at the first hospital already had her leg in traction. She said the fire was so bad it drove her to a second-floor window where she stood screaming for help.
The man who answered her call might not have been the person she was hoping would come. Heroes don’t always look the part. Joey didn’t. He wore a red bandana; a leather motorcycle jacket and spiked wrist bracelets. He’d just gotten off a nightshift and had been sitting in an all-night diner when he heard her screams. It was just after the fire had broken out and before the firemen had arrived.
He was the one who ran back to the diner and organized a “rescue party” of fellow customers, after asking the waitress to call the fire department. His volunteer brigade responded quickly when he ran into the restaurant yelling, “Fire! Big Fire! Lady needs help.”
The group stood under the woman’s window. They formed a human net as they clasped their hands together and encouraged her to jump. She was petrified, but the flames were getting closer, and she was already encircled in smoke. Reluctantly, she hung from her windowsill and then let go. As she slid down the building her leg was broken when she hit a hanging sign, but the group caught her before she hit the sidewalk.
After spending time praying and praising God with the woman, I went to the other hospital to seek out the other injured person. I saw an elderly woman sitting on a bench outside of the patient’s room. As usual, my Salvation Army uniform helped me gain entrance to wherever it was necessary for me to go.
Instinctively, I sat down beside the woman in the hallway. It was apparent that she’d been crying. After a few moments, I reached out my hand and held hers.
“It’s my daughter-in-law,” she said through trembling tears. “Her son, J. J., my grandson, was lost in the fire.”
She told me her son and his wife lived in the building that she described as “a cardboard box covered in siding.” She said they couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. Their apartment was on the third floor. When the fire broke out, they were able to get out through a window. Her daughter-in-law had little four-year-old J. J. by the hand, but as she tried to get on the rescue ladder, he broke away from her and ran back into the fire, where he was killed.”
After she related this story, we shared moments of sobbing grief together. Finally, we went into the room of this young mother, who was deeply-sorrowing and in shock. We each held one of her hands, and then I quietly prayed for “God’s peace to be with her.” There were no words that could bring true comfort.
When the grandmother and I left her room, we began walking together up the corridor. A man, with no shirt, no socks or shoes, came running toward us. Seeing my uniform, he yelled to me, “Captain, captain, you’ve got to help me.” His eyes were wild with fear, and his face was covered with soot.
Following the example of Jesus, I asked, “What do you want me to do for you?”
He grabbed hold of me. “Captain, I need some shoes and socks. I need some clothes and food . . . and we’ll need furniture. It all got wrecked in the fire.”
The woman beside me squeezed my hand to let me know this was her son, J. J.’s father.
After reassuring him that we would gladly help him, we went back to the Army’s building together. While this man needed much more than food and clothing, we supplied what he asked for, until he could rationally begin to deal with his true circumstances and his grief.
When someone came to retrieve them, I went home to bed for a few hours of badly needed sleep. After I returned to my office that afternoon, I learned that J. J.’s grandmother had called me and asked for me to call her back.
When I got her on the phone, she explained, “My son and daughter-in-law haven’t been to church in a long time, and they have no pastor. Would you be willing to do J. J.’s funeral?”
The Army covered the funeral expenses, and we held the funeral in the family’s neighborhood, so their family and friends would feel comfortable in familiar surroundings. Later, we found the couple a place to live, filled their new place with furniture, and got them extensive counseling.
A seemingly innocent early-morning fire-call became much more than any of us could have ever anticipated, but we were glad to serve in a wide-variety of ways in Jesus’ name.