Gregory Rattler Jr. will talk about the explosion and the flames. But first, he wants to talk about the outpouring of affection he’s experienced.
“My phone has not stopped ringing. Text messages have not stopped coming in. My voice-mail is almost at capacity,” Rattler said, also describing how neighbors have pressed a few dollars into his hand to help him recover from the massive fire that destroyed his house in Broadmoor on May 27.
Rattler, 34, who heads up CeaseFire, the city’s anti-violence initiative, said his co-workers have “wrapped their arms around him” while other family members, friends and neighbors have tracked him down to deliver clothes, plates of food and prayers.
It is quintessential Greg Rattler to focus on the positive, said former City Council President Oliver Thomas, who described Rattler as “one of the finest young men that I’ve ever met.”
The night of the fire, Thomas drove to Rattler’s house on General Pershing Street and stood with him as flames engulfed the home, which is now uninhabitable and faces demolition.
Somehow firefighters were able to emerge with some family photos from a front bookshelf. But Rattler was not able to go in and retrieve anything. At first, the fire was too intense, and then the house was cordoned off as a fire-investigation scene.
Rattler was especially broken-hearted to lose the last keepsakes he had of his mother, Gwyneth Pierre, who died at age 39 of cancer. The fire took her diploma from St. Mary’s Academy; her death certificate, dated Oct. 23, 2001; an oil painting of her, given to him by a friend; and hospital gloves Rattler was given when he came home from Howard University for her funeral.
The gloves were precious to him because his cousin wore them when he helped carry Pierre’s body from her hospice bed in her home to the coroner’s van waiting outside.
The circumstances around the fire are curious. The day before the fire, an abandoned van showed up in a driveway that runs between Rattler’s house and the abandoned, blighted house next door.
All the van’s windows were broken, and it had no license plate and no side mirror on the left-hand side, said Rattler, who called 911 that night to ask officers to take a look at it, though he isn’t sure what resulted from his call.
Early reports indicated that the fire began in the van. When the first New Orleans Fire Department trucks arrived at the scene at 6:24 p.m., the van was already “heavily involved in fire,” the department reported.
Rattler is grateful for a community meeting that took him away from home that evening. He had debated heading home after work to take a short nap in his back bedroom. Because of the meeting, though, he was not lying there when the van exploded, setting that part of his house ablaze.
Alerted by a neighbor, Rattler heard the news as he was leaving the meeting. He raced home.
That night, standing outside the burned home, Thomas asked Rattler about what else he owned.
“He just pointed to his back,” said Thomas, who spent the next few days sending everyone he knows a link to a GoFundMe campaign for Rattler.
“Without help, it will take a long time,” Thomas said.
Rattler’s aunt Carol Bebelle, who runs the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in Central City, noted how all of her friends watched proudly as Rattler graduated from St. Augustine High School, then earned a bachelor’s degree at Howard University and a master’s in public health from Tulane before becoming one of the city’s rising stars through his research and his grassroots work, especially with young black men.
Now, everyone is asking what they can do to help.
“I told him, ‘All of your aunties are animating their networks,” said Bebelle, who describes the community’s response to her nephew’s tragedy as “love at work.”
Rattler agrees. “Regardless of how much I say, I will still be understating my appreciation,” he said.