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Saddened tenants relieved to be safe

BRATTLEBORO—Two fire-displaced Brooks House residents seemed anything but troubled on Monday as they milled around the Gibson-Aiken Center on Main Street, their refuge for the time being.

On Sunday, Deanna Garcia, who’s lived at Brooks House for about five years, was glad to be back in her fourth-floor apartment after convalescing at Thompson House for six weeks, recovering from hip replacement surgery.

She’d been home for only one night.

When she first smelled smoke, she said she wasn’t that bothered, because cooking smells often permeate the hallways.

But when she heard the alarm, she knew it was real, and she fled to the nearest fire escape with her cane. She was subsequently helped down the stairs.

“It must have taken 15 minutes to get me down,” she said, chuckling about how her walker was now just sitting by itself in the hall. Another was secured for her at the Gibson-Aiken.

She described the walker training she’d received at Thompson House.

“If you could stand with your walker for 14 minutes, that was good,” she said, having just been interviewed, standing, by local television and press reporters and more or less demonstrating her skills.

She didn’t think she’d done damage to her hip with all of the moving around and was more worried about her knees, which she said caused her some pain.

“I don’t know how to explain it, but if you’d seen me last night [in the Harmony parking lot where the evacuees had gathered], you’d think I was the happiest person in the world,” she explained. “It was like a dream.”

She left basically with just the clothes on her back, and said that it was hard losing family photographs and scrapbooks.

“Everything else is replaceable,” she observed.  “I had an old TV and an old computer, and I was about to get a new one.”

She was looking forward, she said, to spending the night at the Gibson-Aiken “in the couch area. There’s plenty of food and we have bathrooms and we even have showers.”

Her daughter, Marcella Unaitis, of Vernon, was on the scene and offering comfort.

Meanwhile, Alfred Hughes Jr. was warding off the blues with some dark humor, especially about his three-month-old laptop, left behind and probably not recoverable.

“I was just learning how to use it,” he moaned, shrugging his shoulders with regret.

Hughes said he’s lived at Brooks House for about 15 years. He came to Vermont because he had friends here, and is originally from the United States Virgin Islands.

A helpful woman standing nearby urged him repeatedly to call if he needed a place to stay that night.

He said he’d be all right, and had stayed with friends the night of the fire. He was planning to stay at the Gibson-Aiken that night in a room where what looked like brand new cots had been set up.

His experience was not unlike Garcia’s, but he lived on the third floor.

“I was in my apartment on the Internet, and I heard the alarm go off, but that’s not unusual, and there was smoke in the hall, also not unusual,” he explained.  “Then I heard the sprinklers go off and I knew something was wrong. I went downstairs and out the front door.  That was around 9 p.m.”

He joined others in the Harmony Lot.

“You could see flames coming out from the fifth floor,” he said. “Then I heard everyone was at Aiken, so I came here.”

Hughes said he’d already heard from officials that apartments in three downtown buildings were being considered for the former Brooks House tenants.

Hughes and Garcia both said they were pretty sure they’d never get back into their old apartments to see what survived.

“I left everything,” Hughes said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #97 (Wednesday, April 20, 2011).

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