One of the fire victims was stuck in her second-floor apartment. Neighbors yelled to firefighters to save her. She wouldn’t make it out on her own.
“She was covered in black and breathing out of her purse,” said displaced resident Evelyn Englehardt, as she sat outside Simmons Village awaiting a representative from her rental insurance company Tuesday afternoon. “Honey’s still in the hospital with smoke inhalation.”
Englehardt hopes to salvage some belongings, get them packed up and cleaned.
For the rest of June, her stay at an “extended stay” hotel in West Warwick has been covered. After that, however, is a frightening mystery.
Englehardt had already paid her June rent, which has been applied toward the hotel stay. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the building owner are expected to pick up the rest of the tab. But after June 30, she fears homelessness.
She and 51 other residents, mostly senior citizens receiving government assistance, have been burned out of their home.
“This is very stressful for senior citizens to go through,” Englehardt said, while sitting outside the fenced-off building. “We’re still in shock. Obviously it’s a disaster — it’s confusing. I’m grateful for a place to stay.”
She may be one of the lucky ones. She had insurance. Englehardt said she knew two neighbors who didn’t.
Property management company Piscerne Realty Group has pledged to help with the transition and to pick up the remaining tab after applying rent and federal assistance.
Property Manager Meghan Mancuso said earlier this week that it may be as long as 6 to 12 months until Simmons Village apartment tenants are allowed to return to their homes. She said that the 45-unit building, constructed in 1979, has to be completely gutted as a result of the fire that occurred on Sunday, May 28.
Approximately 30 firefighters responded to the fire, evacuating the building of residents and avoiding serious injuries. They are still investigating the cause of the bench and mulch fire that ignited the exterior of the apartment building.
“We’re going to be doing a lot of work in there,” Mancuso said. “The building itself will remain, but everything else on the inside, we will be replacing pretty much everything.”
As for the tenants who were displaced from the fire, Mancuso said that Picerne has been engaging in ongoing conversations with the Rhode Island housing officials and HUD “to figure out a more long-term solution for these tenants.”
According to Mancuso, the property managers have not yet reached a conclusion regarding how they will house the displaced tenants for the duration of reconstruction.
Right now, tenants are staying in an extended-stay hotel or have made their own arrangements with family or friends.
Mancuso said that for the month of June, the tenants who are living in the extended stay accommodations are paying their rent, HUD is paying their portion and Picerne is covering the difference. Those who have found their own accommodations are not paying rent. At the moment, she does not know if this arrangement will continue into July.
Mancuso said that she’s been in “constant communication with all of them pretty much daily to reassure them, to find out how they’re doing and see how plans are changing in terms of where they’re staying.”
She added that most days, tenants stop by her office to see if there are any updates.
“We want to make sure that they’re all set as they can be during this difficult time,” Mancuso added.
The entire building has officially been closed off to the public, and the restoration company has begun its work. The entrance and burnt portion has been fenced off. The smell of damp smoke still lingers heavily in the air.
Massive dumpsters have been packed with discarded refrigerators.
Mancuso said that the damage is different in each unit, with some experiencing more damage from the fire, while others experienced more water damage. She said it’s still too early to determine the cost and magnitude of the construction.
“Things are changing all the time,” Mancuso said.
Mancuso added they are still trying to figure out how to store and return personal belongings to tenants before they can fully begin the other construction work. She does not know how long this portion of the process will last and is unable to say when they will be able to begin construction. She hopes it’s “as soon as possible.”
Last week, tenants were able to enter the building for a short period of time while accompanied by either a member of the fire department or a staff member. Now, they’ve stopped letting nonprofessionals into the building.
“Because of the deteriorating air quality, it was no longer safe for people to go in the building, so we pulled that back,” Mancuso said.
Now, Picerne employees are grabbing belongings for the tenants or allowing licensed professionals like insurance agents into the building on their behalf.
“We want to make sure that we’re being as safe as possible,” Mancuso said.
Meanwhile, residents like Englehardt are eagerly awaiting news of future accommodations and a firm return date.
The nonsmoker sat in the smoking hut outside the building with fellow displaced neighbor Donna Marcera, and complex resident from another building, Louis Furia.
They examined the wood mulch at their feet and blamed it for the fire. They said there’s plenty of blame to share with the smoker who possibly ignited the blaze. Initial reports indicate a discarded cigarette outside the building entrance possibly sparked the first flames.
A shriveled charred tree, a blackened disabled parking sign and a melted air condition hanging off the building façade are eerie reminders how much danger the residents faced.
They said residents are forbidden to smoke within 50-feet of the buildings, but that some residents often ignored that rule with no repercussions.
“Everything’s wood,” Englehardt said. “It just went right up.”
Furia kicked at the ground.
“The first thing they should do is pull up all this mulch and put down crushed stone,” he said. “Throw a cigarette on crushed stone. See what happens.”
Editor’s Note: Dana Richie, a Brown University student, is a Beacon Communications intern.
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