BLOOMINGTON — Cynthia Carruthers was in her Gettysburg Drive apartment when she heard a smoke alarm going off elsewhere in the building Saturday afternoon.
Then a next-door neighbor started shouting to get out because there was a fire.
“We lost everything,” said Carruthers, who escaped safely with her two daughters and three grandchildren.
On Monday she was combing through donations that filled the gym at Stevenson Elementary School, where her grandchildren are students. A donation drive launched through social media quickly filled the school's gym with clothing, toiletries, food, toys and household items, such as blankets for the residents displaced by the fire at 1101 Gettysburg Drive.
“We had 200 bags to sort through when my staff came in this morning,” Stevenson Principal Katy Hansen said Monday.
Cortney Shipp was a few minutes away from her apartment where she lived with her three daughters, ages 13, 8 and 7, when she heard about the fire. They, too, lost everything except the clothes they were wearing.
“Stevenson is a tremendous help,” she said of the school her two younger girls attend.
The school still is accepting cash and gift cards at the office at 2106 Arrowhead Drive, just a few blocks from where the fire occurred.
Six students from Stevenson lost their homes in the fire, along with three Bloomington Junior High School students and four children not yet in school, according to Hansen.
“Our focus right now is the seven families,” said Hansen, who has been Stevenson's principal for four years.
Eastview Christian Church is among those helping the families.
Senior pastor Mike Baker said the church paid for hotel lodging for some families, is helping them contact social service agencies, provided food and toiletries and invited them to use the church's food pantry.
In addition, Baker said the church has a monthly “dollar collection” during which people drop a dollar in a basket after Sunday services. That collection this Sunday will be for the benefit of the fire victims, he said.
The American Red Cross Serving Central Illinois helped 28 people — 14 adults and 14 children — on Saturday, providing comfort kits, blankets and financial assistance for lodging and food, said Red Cross spokeswoman Trish Burnett. Case workers will be meeting with those displaced by the fire to determine their needs, she said.
Some of the families have spent a couple of nights in hotels. Others are staying temporarily with other family members.
No matter where the students wind up living, they will be able to continue to attend Stevenson, said second-grade teacher Alison Scott. One of her students lived in the Gettysburg Drive apartment building.
“We want to keep that continuity for the kids,” she said. “Our job is to give the kids a safe place. Our staff works so hard to build relationships.”
Sunday night, the school hosted a spaghetti dinner for the affected families.
Carruthers said the meal “brought us together” and provided a chance to exchange phone numbers and other information with people who had been their neighbors.
“All we want right now is a roof back over our heads,” said Carruthers, who is staying with another daughter for now.
Fire officials said the cause of the fire has not been determined but damage was estimated at $650,000. A fire inspector at the scene said the building appeared to be a total loss.
One firefighter was transported to a hospital with a minor injury and has since been released, said Stuart Blade, the Bloomington Fire Department's public information officer.
The first truck arrived on the scene at 3:12 p.m. The fire was not brought under control until 8:30 p.m. Firefighters from Normal, Towanda and Downs assisted Bloomington in battling the blaze.
Scott said the school is very grateful for the response it received from people donating items and donating time to help sort what was received.
Not only are the items useful, the response also helps the children to “see how the community is here to support them,” said Scott.
Classes were not in session Monday because it was a planned school improvement day. Physical education classes will take place elsewhere on Tuesday while the gym is used for donations, Hansen said.