BLOOMINGTON — Two weeks after flames gutted their home, the families of a Bloomington apartment fire are starting from square one — but they aren’t doing it alone.
“We’re working to rebuild the foundation of our family,” said Atavia Brown of Bloomington. “We lost our homes and clothes and stuff for our kids, but we’ve received so much help.”
Brown was living with her children, mother and sister in an apartment at 1101 Gettysburg Drive when they noticed black smoke from a neighboring unit on the afternoon of Feb. 10.
All 29 residents safely evacuated the two-story, 12-unit building, but they lost everything.
As firefighters worked to control the blaze, American Red Cross Serving Central Illinois began moving families to its nearby facility. The next day, Stevenson Elementary School started collecting clothing, gift cards and toiletries for the families.
Eastview Christian Church in Normal partnered with the school to help five families find new apartments, covering the cost of security deposits and first month’s rent. The church also plans to supply the families with basic furniture, appliances and groceries through its food pantry.
“I couldn’t ask for more than that," said Cynthia Carruthers, Brown's mother. "The community has helped us. It wasn’t even their responsibility but they pitched in and helped."
Luke Hensleigh, director of local outreach for Eastview, said church staff was immediately contacted by friends of the displaced families, requesting help.
Many of the funds came from a Sunday collection from the congregation and he said church staff will continue to work with the families and offer financial guidance.
“We won’t walk away,” said Hensleigh. “When someone in our community is hurting we want to be there for our neighbors and love them in the best way we possibly can.”
Carruthers and Brown are now settled in Bloomington apartments with their families.
“It’s much nicer where we are now. Everything is secure with cameras inside and outside the building,” said Carruthers, who had lived at the Gettysburg building since October.
She said that apartment was missing smoke alarms, appliances were broken and there was no heat.
“I put up curtains on windows to keep heat in the room. I bought space heaters but the breakers would always flip when we turned them on. We had to burn the top of the stove to get warm,” said the grandmother of three.
Carruthers reported the issues to city inspectors, but she said the landlord never corrected the violations.
Attempts to contact the building's owner, Wayne Pelhank, have not been successful.
On Friday morning, Carruthers and other former tenants watched from a van as an excavation crew and fire inspectors continued their search for the cause of the fire.
Dave Capodice Excavating demolished the eastern, center portion of the burned structure, creating a nearby pile of charred wood, appliances and clothing.
“We assisted with an excavator to bring down parts of the unstable roof and walls as needed to complete the fire inspection,” said Jenny Vericella, co-owner of Dave Capodice Excavating.
Officials on scene confirmed Auto-Owners Insurance was investigating the cause of the fire. Damage has been estimated at $650,000.
Inspectors roamed inside the burned building, moving the wreckage with poles and taking photos. Crews were seen removing items wrapped in plastic.