What is there to even say about grief like this?
Forty-eight hours after the unspeakable tragedy of the deadly house fire in Fairmount — my neighborhood — it feels pointless to try to find new words about it. Truth is, there were no good words to begin with. What can anyone say about losing 12 lives — including nine children — in a house fire, on a pretty block, on what was supposed to be a normal winter morning?
Of course, people have tried to say something, because they have to. Mayor Kenney tried, for one, grasping for words in front of news cameras. But that candid photo of him the Inquirer caught — eyes closed, head back, slumped against a parked car — said more.
Also: That shake in the deputy fire commissioner’s voice when he described the scene. The tightly clasped hands of family and friends of the victims, praying at a Red Cross Station set up at the Bache-Martin Elementary School up the block. The rainbow of balloons — jarringly cheerful, gutting — that stand as memorials at the entrances to the school, which lost two current students and three former students to the fire.
People always say this after a tragedy, but it’s true in Fairmount: This is a close-knit community. Mostly, we know each other. And if we don’t know someone, we recognize their faces, and their children’s faces. Throughout Wednesday, we mostly sat still with the dread. We had heard sirens, of course, early in the morning. Too loud, too close, for too long. There was the flurry of activity, and news cameras. And then rumors of the worst thing, which nobody wanted to speak out loud, and so they didn’t. Instead, people waved meekly in passing; neighbors embraced on the sidewalk. It was loud — news helicopters droned overhead all day — but it was also eerily quiet.
What was there to say?
More people have tried to find words since then — also because they have had to: The family members and friends of victims who have spoken, haltingly and dazed, to the papers. The neighborhood pastors, who led an online prayer vigil on Wednesday night. More than 300 people — neighbors, educators, elected officials, parents dialed in. Many kept their cameras off, presumably to cry in private togetherness. Pastor Chandra Williams sang a hymn. Sorrows like sea billows roll, the hymn goes.
On Thursday, I sat next to my son as extra counselors joined Bache-Martin’s teachers and principal in dozens of virtual classrooms, helping children process the unprocessable. They were all wonderful; our teachers, as always, are wonderful. And devastated.
Outside this bubble, other people are reaching for words, too. You’ve seen it all, surely: People praying and offering sympathy and spewing rage at the system, even as it remains unclear as yet which specific system or systems we should be furious with, to demand accountability from. Maybe it’s all of them. Or all of us. Or not. We will see, surely, in coming days and weeks. Anyway, it’s okay to be mad, to rage right now, the counselors told the schoolchildren this morning. Grief looks like different things.
Here’s what it looks like most of all right now in the neighborhood: Waves and waves of people desperate to do something. To help in some way. If Wednesday was largely silent, blanketed by shock, Thursday’s energy had shifted to frantic. To urgent. There was in the neighborhood, and — in truth now, in the whole city — constant Slacking, emailing, asking: How to help? Where to give? What to do?
And that’s something, maybe. Even in Corona times, even in desensitized and downtrodden Philadelphia, there is still this: nonprofits are already gathering clothes for the survivors; friends of the families involved are launching GoFundMe campaigns like this one, or this one, or this one; business magnates are offering help to victims and grieving families; local businesses, grieving. (This, in addition to power players like The Red Cross, Aetna and the mayor’s office who are helping.)
I also know that calls are pouring into the school group, the Friends of Bache-Martin, from electeds, from corporations and businesses, from normal people: Let us help. An editor here at the Citizen wondered which fire station sent their first responders: Perhaps they’d need notes of encouragement. (Good idea: See more on that below.)
During the early stages of Covid isolation in 2020, people all around our neighborhood hired “the balloon lady” — a.k.a. Florescio Events — to deck their houses with colorful balloon sculptures. These are the same sort of balloons, from the same balloon lady, around Bache-Martin this week, tied to traffic signs at the top and bottom of 23rd Street. Long ago, they became a sort of shorthand for hope, for camaraderie and togetherness in exceedingly dark times.
At a candlelight vigil in front of the school last night, hundreds of people who gathered in real time together to honor the victims also brought balloons — purple, white, pink, blue — some of the children’s favorite colors.
If you’re moved, as many seem to be, to channel unspeakable grief in the wake of this fire into aid, here are a few more options:
Donate money to help the survivors
The Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, the nonprofit that helps raise money to support schools, has launched a family support fund as a way to aid the survivors of the fire. You can learn more (or donate any amount) on the Fund’s site. You can also donate through Children First, formerly known as Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), which rarely responds to individual tragedies, but has launched a fundraiser in this case, given the “the sheer number of children who died in this tragic situation.” You can learn more about (or donate to) this fund on their site.
Support First Responders
At least three fire stations responded to the blaze, and the grief from first responders was palpable from morning until evening, when a somber parade of police vans drove off with the bodies of those who died. As Fire Capt. Derek Bowmer told the Inquirer on Wednesday: “I’m not doing well at all. We are hurting.” You can find addresses for Engine 13, Engine 34 and Ladder 9 here, to send a note of thanks for the work they do. Or, you can donate to the Philadelphia Fire Department Foundation here.
Community organizer Anton Moore is spreading the word about how to donate clothes for the surviving residents, who lost everything in the fire. Moore is accepting donations, as is Mikes BBQ in South Philly. And several businesses, including Forman Mills, have stepped up to offer help, as well.
Care about all our children
The fire on 23rd Street and the loss of life is an unspeakable tragedy. The horrible truth is that we live in a city where unspeakable tragedies unfold on the regular. (See: Eight homicides already in 2022. See, also: Nearly three dozen children dead from gunshots in 2021.) It shouldn’t take a tweet from Jill Biden to see something as a life-rupturing emergency; it shouldn’t take the absolute worst thing to bring out the brotherly love and generosity of Philadelphia.
Don’t jump to conclusions
It took all of a minute for the blame to go around, including calls for PHA chief Kelvin Jeremiah to resign. But we don’t actually know what happened, or why, just yet. Let’s wait for information before deciding who—if anyone—to blame for the tragedy.
Check your smoke alarms. Make a fire plan
Deadly house fires are rare, but the tragedy this week is a reminder that it happens, and that in many cases it’s preventable. Let this be a reminder to install and check smoke alarms, make and practice an emergency escape plan with your family and anyone else in your household. Here are seven tips from the American Red Cross.
The Citizen is one of 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic mobility. Follow the project on Twitter @BrokeInPhilly.