Even though his Kenner apartment burned down in a massive fire that officials say left him and at least 73 other people homeless Sunday, 38-year-old Ruben Perez and his family members consider themselves some of the fortunate ones.
Perez said Thursday that he, his wife and their four children — ages 7 to 14 — used some of the assistance they received from the American Red Cross after the fire tore through their 20-unit apartment complex at Alabama Avenue and Vintage Drive to rent a new place around the corner. So did his mother-in-law and her boyfriend, who lived in another apartment at the burned-down complex, he said.
But not everyone was as lucky, said Perez, who spent three nights at a temporary shelter set up at Woodward Gym on 34th Street after the fire Sunday afternoon. Packing up to leave the gym, which Red Cross officials said was occupied by as many as 36 people at one point before it closed Wednesday, Perez said it became clear that some of the victims did not know where to go next.
“It’s hard. Some people ask (for) too much (rent),” Perez said, surrounded by a still-strong scent of smoke as he retrieved what few personal belongings were salvageable from his old apartment. “But we found one yesterday, and we can start moving on.”
State Fire Marshal Butch Browning, whose agency is leading the investigation into the blaze, said his office has not yet been able to determine an exact cause for the disaster. But he said the fire did not appear to be suspicious, meaning it was caused by something accidental in nature.
On Thursday morning, Kenner Police Chief John Hellmers said he was under the impression investigators were probing the possibility that someone’s careless handling of smoking materials — such as a lighter — might have caused the fire, which grew to be so large because it apparently burned unnoticed in between two buildings for at least several minutes.
It burned so long “the initial fire may have gone out at some point, but it had already gone up the side and into the attic ... and then the smoke stayed in the attic (for a bit) before it started pouring out,” at which point the blaze was noticed, Hellmers said.
Whatever the case, no residents were injured, though officials said the emotional hurt they felt was palpable, especially at the gym.
Red Cross spokeswoman Nancy Malone said some of the victims had lost their homes and possessions during Hurricane Katrina, and they were in disbelief that they had endured another life-altering event.
Nonetheless, as news of the fire spread, numerous people associated with churches and religious charities dropped off clothes at the gym, Malone said. Many of the victims speak mainly Spanish, and volunteer translators showed up to facilitate communication with the Red Cross, whose assistance involved voucher cards and donated clothes, among other things.
“So many people came together to support these families,” Malone said.
Even so, whether they have found long-term living arrangements or are staying at a hotel to plan their next move, the fire victims face an uncertain path. Some victims haven’t found affordable housing in areas they consider safe, and others have moved into sparsely furnished apartments.
The Red Cross asked anyone wishing to donate items or money to call (800) Red-Cross. Many of the victims are most in need of furniture and appliances, the organization said.
WWL-TV’s Meg Farris contributed to this report.