All 80 residents of the Community House on Broadway emergency homeless shelter were evacuated Wednesday morning as a result of a dryer fire in the second-floor laundry room.
One person went to St. John Medical Center for treatment of smoke inhalation, but otherwise no one was injured, said Longview Fire Chief Phil Jurmu.
The incident sparked an outpouring of assistance from the community. The Salvation Army, for example, provided blankets, 150 sandwiches, 130 bottles of water, fruit, snacks, diapers and baby bottles. It also was coordinating with the Commerce Avenue UBET Casino to serve a pizza dinner at the shelter Wednesday night, said Salvation Army Capt. Darryck Dwelle.
“The community came together so greatly in response to this. I’m amazed at everything. I figured we were going to be sitting out across the street by the chiropractor’s place all day,” shelter resident Crystal Moldenhauer said late in the morning. “It was amazing to see compassion and love and just care from the people that don’t even know us.”
Residents were expected to return to the shelter, located at 1107 Broadway, on Wednesday night.
A sprinkler system contained the fire to the second-floor laundry room, and firefighters finished dousing the fire within minutes of arriving shortly after 8 a.m., Jurmu said.
Water from the sprinklers and firefighting effort leaked down to the first floor into God’s Closet, a Community House ministry that gives clothing to low-income people. From there it poured into the basement and into a floor drain, Jurmu said. Firefighters and staff were working to limit water damage.
Late in the morning, there was still a strong smell of smoke and burnt materials throughout the second floor and hallway leading to the laundry room. The smoke alarm, which was charred on the sides and damp from water, was still beeping faintly.
Jurmu termed the damage “minor to moderate.” Almost 80 people were staying at the shelter when the fire broke out, shelter staff reported.
Shelter residents, which include dozens of children, were housed in the nearby Evangel Christian Fellowship Church in a large common area and were assisted by the Red Cross, Emergency Support Shelter, Salvation Army and other community members. The residents were brought food, blankets and other supplies.
Many of the residents were still in pajamas and had little of their belongings or knowledge of whether they would be salvageable Wednesday morning.
Several small children had no shoes or socks on due to the rush to evacuate the shelter. Moldenhauer is staying at the shelter with her five young children and husband. She checked out a report about laundry room smoke and was swamped by the smell of burning rubber and plastic. A large plume of smoke and flames shot out of the dryer, so she ran into the hall and pulled the fire alarm.
At the time, most of the residents were doing their chores, cleaning up from breakfast or getting kids ready for school or themselves ready for work. Many initially thought the fire alarm was just another drill, she said. Then residents began shouting, “no drill.”
Thanks to previous fire drills, “we were all prepared to be able to get out of the house quickly and safely,” Moldenhauer said.
Moldenhauer said the events of the morning were emotional for some people, and for her it caused a flashback to a fire that destroyed her father’s home when she was just 11.
“It put me back into a very sad place, like all I could do was get my family out of the (shelter),” she said. “My worry was getting my husband, getting my kids and getting out.”
Frank Morrison, director of Community House, said he was grateful for the help from the community. He said they had mental health staff available in the Evangel common area to help residents struggling with emotional or mental health responses to the fire. He said both staff and the residents were a big help in the morning and said several people stayed behind to help clean up some of the water in the shelter.
“It was really cool. They just saw a need and jumped on it,” Morrison said. “We just deal with a large volume of people. We do the best we can with what we’ve got.”
Another shelter resident, James Jenne, is a former paramedic of 10 years. When he heard about the fire, he said he rushed inside and began helping evacuate the second floor. Jenne said he began making sure rooms were empty and doors were closed.
“You get into that mindset and instinct just takes over,” he said. “Just making sure everybody was safe was my main concern. That’s all it ever is.”
Jenne said he hopes the community helps CHOB residents recover from the fire. He said many people were affected emotionally. He said he planned to continue walking around the common area soothing peoples’ worries and making sure they had the support and comfort they need.
“I hope the community sees how much their help is needed now ... to put things back to normal,” Jenne said. “Don’t look so down on these people because there’s some good people in there and we’re going to need some help redoing this.”