BRATTLEBORO—On the night of April 17, Shawnna O’Connor left her fourth floor apartment in the Brooks House on Main Street, thinking the fire alarm blaring through the building was false.
Juniper, her seven-year-old cat, was asleep on the bed. She ignored the alarm.
When O’Connor reached the street, she said people were pointing at flames coming from the building’s roof.
“And my heart just broke,” said O’Connor.
Authorities wouldn’t allow O’Connor back into her apartment until Wednesday.
The five-alarm fire that tore through the Brooks House displaced O’Connor and 60 neighbors. Everyone was accounted for, except Juniper.
Earlier, O’Connor had unsuccessfully called the local veterinarians and the Windham County Humane Society the day before. She hoped Juniper had surfaced and been turned in by a good Samaritan.
“I was freaking out,” O’Connor said.
The apartment door stood “wide open,” said O’Connor. She assumed Juniper had run away during the commotion.
O’Connor was collecting items from her bedroom.
“You might want to come in here,” her friend called from the living room.
O’Connor said she braced herself for the worst.
Juniper’s tail stuck out from a 4-inch gap between the floor and bookshelf. O’Connor said the 12-pound cat “was just squashed in there” and not moving.
“I called her,” said O’Connor.
“Meow,” Juniper answered.
O’Connor said she clasped her hands, saying “thank you, thank you, thank you” and cried.
She grabbed the nearby cat carrier while her friends moved the bookcase.
Juniper didn’t want to come out. O’Connor said she was wet and “shivering,” from either cold or fear, and “smelled of smoke.”
Juniper doesn’t normally like to be picked up, but when O’Connor held her companion of six years, “she melted into me.”
“It broke my heart to put her in a cat carrier,” she said.
Outside at the River Garden, O’Connor saw a friend who didn’t live at Brooks House, but knew Juniper. When he heard the cat survived the fire, he started crying, said O’Connor.
“You’re a big, scary-looking man and you’re bawling?” thought O’Connor. “It got me bawling again.”
Later, at her friend’s house, O’Connor said Juniper spent the night washing herself.
The next day O’Connor took her to the vet. Juniper received a “thumbs up.”
“She wasn’t too impressed with the vet visit,” said O’Connor.
The vet cleaned the soot off Juniper’s paws and told O’Connor to give her a lot of love. The vet also said to only give her half the amount of her normal food, because she might eat too much too fast and make herself sick.
O’Connor and Juniper are now living in the Motel 6 on Putney Road until they find permanent housing.
The reunion of Shawnna and Juniper was a bright spot in what was a long week for the tenants of the Brooks House.
Over the course of nine hours, fire crews poured 1.8 million gallons of water to douse the flames. It gushed into the Harmony Lot, carrying Polaroid photographs of children standing in front of Christmas trees, bank statements, and the random ephemera of dozens of tenants.
It filled the building’s basement, turning the inventory of several first-floor business into a sodden mess.
Water tumbled down Main to Flat Street carrying bottle caps, pens, and clothing, as debris sat twisted in little swirls from the temporary eddies created by the passing gallons.
O’Connor’s apartment, which overlooked Main Street, sustained mostly water damage. Last Friday, she was among a group of tenants that were allowed back in to collect whatever she could salvage.
Even though doors were open and windows were smashed, the hallways of the Brooks House smelled heavily of smoke, followed by the heavy scent of wet carpet. Firefighters escorted residents as they climbed the stairs, sloshy step after sloshy step.
One firefighter dripped, sweat-like from the brim of his helmet, what turned out to be water dropping from soaked ceiling tiles. The ceiling tiles drooped from their braces. Unclaimed LPs and paper dotted the floor.
On the fourth floor, insulation hung from the staircase leading to the building’s semi-roofless penthouse. Household items washed up against the hall walls. An apartment gaped at the Harmony Lot, a hole where its brick wall once stood.
In O’Connor’s apartment, the water had conducted a round of distasteful redecorating.
Books, food, some clothing, some art supplies, and most of her furniture she left behind in her drenched fourth-floor apartment. Many items — especially porous things like books and bedding — had to stay put because,of potential contamination, according to the firefighters.
O’Connor, who is a feline portrait artist, regrets leaving behind her books many of which were art and photography books. She did salvage, however, some of her art supplies and favorite paintings.
Picking up the pieces
Sitting in her motel room on Monday afternoon, a week after the fire, O’Connor took stock of where her life stands now,
O’Connor said she feels a little better. Last Monday night, she said she was “in shock and couldn’t even cry.”
Juniper is still skittish, and hides under the bed when she hears loud footsteps clomping up and down the motel’s exterior staircase.
The Economic Services Division of the Vermont Agency of Human Services is footing the motel bill.
“Thank goodness for Economic Services,” said O’Connor, adding that the Red Cross has also paid for a part of her motel stay.
O’Connor said that Juniper hates to be separated from her, even when O’Connor makes a quick trip to the motel office for coffee. When O’Connor returns to the room, Juniper meets her and runs “figure eights around my legs.”
O’Connor said that she’s wanted to move out of Brooks House in favor of a “more affordable” place. O’Connor said rent at Brooks House for a two-room apartment ran $600 a month plus utilities. She applied for a spot in a Brattleboro Housing Authority apartment over a year ago. According to O’Connor, the BHA has contacted her since the fire and asked her to call back in early May.
She said she came to Brooks House after a stint in the Overflow Shelter at the First Baptist Church on Main Street.
“I chose to be homeless,” she said.
She moved into the shelter after she and her former boyfriend of seven years broke up. She said she was trying to get off drugs and he and his friends “were into fierce drugs.”
O’Connor openly speaks about being in Narcotics Anonymous. Turning Point, the addiction treatment and support center on Elm Street where she volunteers, has rearranged its schedule, despite a shortage of volunteers, to accommodate her lack of transportation.
She is trying to arrange a new place to live. Friends have chipped in with clean clothes.
O’Connor said the town, Red Cross and Economic Services have lent their support. Although she didn’t need help restoring paperwork such as tax records or bank accounts, like some Brooks House residents, she said support staff helped her replace her non-driver’s I.D. within two days.
Support has come in many ways from the community, said O’Connor, from a friend giving her a ride downtown to the bus not charging fire victims. Even Zephyr Designs gave O’Connor 50 percent off a portrait-sized canvas normally beyond her budget.
As for Juniper, she spends most of her time hiding under the bed at Motel 6, her yellow eyes peeking out from the darkness.
O’Connor tries to tempt her out with kitty treats, and sings to her to calm her down.
“She’s a spoiled little girl,” O’Connor said.