MADISON HEIGHTS — When fire broke out Jan. 8 in the attic of a 20-unit building in The Heights Apartments, it utterly wrecked half of the building. By the time the blaze was put out, the rest of the building had suffered extensive smoke and water damage.
Fortunately, nobody was hurt; one man noticed the smoke while outside that night, and quickly alerted the others.
Now the displaced individuals are piecing their lives back together, struggling to figure out what to do next.
Many of them are living with family or friends, or are set up with temporary arrangements in nearby hotels and apartments. While everyone had renters’ insurance, the fact remains they lost nearly everything they owned, making this a difficult transition.
Others have tried to help — a resident in a neighboring condo association arranged for donations of clothing, food, personal hygiene objects and kitchenware, all of which have made a difference. Beaumont Hospital provided some items, as well.
Those who want to help the homeless residents can still do so by making donations at The Heights clubhouse, right inside the entrance at 1545 E. 13 Mile, west of Dequindre.
“We’d appreciate gift cards to local grocery stores so they can buy food, underclothes, and other everyday items,” said Jenna DeClercq, regional manager at The Heights. “I know some of the residents were able to salvage their clothes and get them cleaned, but it would still help.”
One displaced resident is Lee Watson. She will be moving back into a different unit at The Heights: smaller accommodations than she had before on the southwest corner of the first floor of the building. The fire started on the top floor of the northwest end.
“There is water damage, and most of my ceiling collapsed — you can see through to the sky,” Watson said.
She remembers the night vividly. Her brother had been staying with her, temporarily, while he started his new job. He was not home that night, and she was just waking up for her midnight shift.
“I heard a commotion — I thought maybe it was my neighbors roughhousing or moving furniture or something,” Watson said. She saw police outside and figured they were addressing it, but the commotion continued, so she decided to call 911.
When the operator asked where she lived, Watson received some surprising news.
“She told me there is a fire that’s been reported, and I need to get out,” Watson said.
Since no smoke detectors were going off, and since there was no other indication to suggest it was a major fire, Watson figured it was maybe a mild kitchen fire, at worst. She got dressed, grabbed her car keys, and opened the front door, expecting to wait in her car for 15 minutes until the situation was declared clear.
But as soon as she opened the door, a firefighter grabbed her.
“The firefighter chewed me out, wondering why I hadn’t come out, since I hadn’t known this was going on, since I thought this was something minor,” Watson said.
She was the last one out of the building. Fire investigators were able to save the drawer of an end-table near the door, which contained her passport and spare car keys.
“But everything else was pretty much lost,” Watson said. “It was surreal, sitting there and watching all of my belongings get destroyed, thinking of all the things I was losing: my birth certificate, family pictures and mementos.”
Watson is also a doctoral student and lost a great deal of research she had for her dissertation on her computer. Her professors were able to help recover what she had submitted for their review, “but it was still a major loss for me,” she said.
She said she’s still one of the lucky ones, since some of the families with children lost even more of their belongings. A number of graduate students living there didn’t have any family or friends to turn to, since they were from out of town.
It will take time for everyone to fully overcome the setback created by the fire.
“It’s still very surreal,” Watson said.
For more information on how to help those displaced by the fire, call The Heights Apartments at (248) 583-1100. The apartments are located at 1545 E. 13 Mile, on the north side of E. 13 Mile, west of Dequindre.