Column: A community of heroes

Struggling back to normalcy after enduring a horrible apartment building fire is truly an uncomfortable and somewhat emotional endeavor. I was on my floor when I heard the pitiful cries for “help” from my neighbor (during an April fire at Saint Mary’s Court at the corner of 24th and G streets. See “Fire scorches FB senior center,” March 3, p. 1). Instinctively I responded by opening my door to offer assistance, but was faced with a hallway full of black and pungent smoke. At this time our negligent front desk clerk had not yet called the fire department – a neighbor from across the street rushed in the lobby with the alarm: “Your building is on fire.” Heroically, Michelle Mullins, the house site manager, and Tracy Rogers, our chef, ran up the stairs to the 5th floor and rescued “Smitty,” our crippled Marine from just across the hall to the fire. These women did all this before the firemen arrived. Say hello to Tracy and Michelle the next time you visit us.

Professional firefighters, however, are the epitome of courage. They pull down that weather-beaten gas mask and, armed with a dim flashlight and an axe, they actually run into flaming structures. I saw it – salute them. The intense heat in that apartment was so powerful it blew out the window in the neighboring apartment and melted the wiring in Smitty’s apartment across the hall.

We were evacuated to the lobby and across the street to a cordial neighbor at Potomac Plaza, with just what we wore. Good Samaritans went to work – I saw gentle people offering care wearing rescue T-shirts from the VA. As the day and discomfort grew on, it became quite miserable for some of the more invalid, and especially folks with asthma. The first to respond with warmth and nourishment was the GWU personality, Michael Akin, who handles the “good neighbor” department. What a feast the Marvin Center laid out for us!

As the evening approached, and since some of us – especially on the “fire floor” – were not allowed to return to our home, we were assigned sleeping accommodations in nearby dorms. The gentle and capable hands of the St. Mary’s services coordinator, Celia Wolter, shepherded us through this terrifying disruption. We were transported to City Hall, where the cordial Jeff Dahlander escorted us to our apartments and patiently instructed us in the function of all the plastic and electronic gadgetry. Our first night – one of nine – was made cozy by the GW personnel of the Office of Community Services, funded by the Herblock, Cafritz and Hattie Strong Foundations.

Our apartments were the tops – big TV, microwave, full kitchen with double door freezer/fridge. In my days at GW such luxury was not available; Strong and Stoughton Halls were the only girls’ dorms and the men had none, except for a couple of WW II Army barracks (no heat) for student-veterans.

The first morning Jeff knocked on my door announcing: “breakfast in 15 minutes.” I thanked him and remarked that I did not have my watch; that afternoon two students delivered a digital alarm clock, installed and set it for me. Downstairs there were The New York Times, The Post and bagels. Then came cold bottled water and a fruit basket.

One evening, at about 9 p.m. while I was watching TV, two students knocked on my door just to call and inquire if I was okay or if I needed any errands done. I was so impressed. These two students volunteered their time in this program to help pay for their rent in a dorm over on F Street. I asked them to write their names, which they did, and I immediately lost them in the ambient confusion. In any case, those students know who they are and I thank them; it was refreshing to visit with them. However, the charm and kindness of student Elizabeth Schmelzel seemed to pervade most of our visit – and since then she has become a very ubiquitous personage around the community.

We really do appreciate those many meals the helpful students delivered to us. However, I must add that the students seemed to be hung up on bagels and cream cheese for our breakfast fare. We old folks do not consider that acceptable in our normal craving for FIBER!

To those nameless students: a big hug and lots of thanks. Above all I enjoyed visiting with you and sharing some of my WW II combat experiences and travels – which are obviously not in your history books. You were courteous, patient and, above all, your good manners impressed me. I am confident you will graduate into respectable and productive citizens in your communities due to your good work and study at GWU.

-The writer is a resident at St. Mary’s Court and a 1951 graduate of GW.

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