Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
Therapist Warren Dale started Tuesday’s meeting with the victims of the Oct. 17 Redwood City apartment fire before they were told they would never be able to enter their units.
Victims of the Terrace Apartments fire were devastated to hear they would never be allowed back into their apartments this week after waiting 11 days to find out the status of their apartment and belongings.
Former residents packed a meeting at the Red Morton Community Center Tuesday with American Red Cross volunteers and Jeff Badstubner of the property management company Sequoia Realty Services. Frustration at the long days and nights they’d spent waiting to hear an update boiled over while Warren Dale, a licensed therapist with expertise in trauma recovery, began talking about the emotions some of the victims may have been feeling. It was hard to know the extent of their grief as many did not yet know the degree of their losses after being rushed out of their homes during the fire, Dale said.
But while some appreciated the sentiment, others simply wanted to know about the personal items they were forced to leave behind during the six-alarm fire Oct. 17. Badstubner said the building was uninhabitable and they would not be able to enter their apartment and personally gather their belongings.
“To not be allowed back in is devastating to me, said resident Lisa Porter, “because I want to be able to assess what actually happened.”
Porter, 47, had lived on the fourth floor close to where the fire started and was lucky to have escaped. She is hearing impaired and sleeps with a sleep apnea mask; luckily she was awoken by her smoke detector that flashed a very bright light when set off, Porter said. She was able to escape by crawling through a hole a firefighter had kicked in the dividing wall between apartment balconies, she added.
The opened windows and broken doors had many residents concerned about theft and whether their salvageable items had remained in the building. Gates and fences were erected around the property and security guards were on site 24 hours a day, Badstubner said.
A third-party environmental consulting company had evaluated the building and would be retrieving, cleaning and returning some of the belongings, Badstubner said. The building was constructed in the 1950s and there are concerns about asbestos, lead paint, smoke, water and mold damage, Badstubner said. Most of their possessions, including clothing, mattresses, larger furniture, televisions and kitchenware would not be salvageable.
“Due to health and safety concerns, those items cannot be removed,” Badstubner said.
Terrace Apartments residents were told two to three people at a time would be scheduled within a 30- to 45-minute window when they could return to the property with a list and be given back some of their belongings. The majority of them will return on Thursday or Friday.
Only about 10 percent of the residents had renters insurance, Badstubner said. Those with renters insurance may have their own environmental moving company enter the apartment for them at their provider’s cost. Many residents questioned why they couldn’t just hire their own movers. The contaminants exposed by the fire require a professional cleaning and moving company, Badstubner said.
Badstubner assured the residents that he would remain at the meeting, answer as many questions as he could and didn’t mind if they “got in his face” as they were going through something traumatic. But niceties weren’t what the residents needed and many chose to leave once they received schedules.
Karen Porter, Lisa Porter’s mother, is a director of legal affairs for a software company and told residents to carefully read any waivers they are presented with and that signing one is not a requirement to receiving their items back.
The Red Cross has received a lot of clothing, but they are now looking for mattresses, furniture and storage, said Marilyn Johnson, job director for the American Red Cross’ service efforts in the crisis.
For many residents, the loss of their belongings is just the beginning on a long road to recovery. Between the Oct. 17 Terrace Apartments and the July 7 Hallmark House Apartments fires, about 144 affordable housing apartments were lost in Redwood City, Johnson said. There are still people from 20 units who remain displaced from the Hallmark fire, Johnson said.
Finding an apartment in the same price range nearby is extremely difficult, said third floor resident Jim, who preferred to not give his last name. The best place he has been able to find since the fire is $600 more than what he paid at Terrace, Jim said. Although he was somewhat relieved to have found a new home, the stark increase in his expenses will force him to cut back on saving for retirement or toward a down payment on a home, Jim said.
The Redwood City Fire Department has set up a donation account for the victims of the Terrace Apartments fire. Cash or checks can be written to “The Woodside Road Victims Relief Fund” and sent to the Redwood City Fire Station 9 at 755 Marshall St., Redwood City, 94063. Donations can also be directly deposited to the Create a Smile Foundation account at the San Mateo Credit Union.
The Red Cross hotline is (650) 259-1765. The Red Cross is looking for furnishing donations such as mattresses or couches, storage facilities and affordable housing opportunities for the victims.
Non-monetary donations can be made to St. Vincent de Paul (650) 366-6367.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106