Young mom, daughter learn to cope with burned-down life

Posted: July 16, 2014

EMSHEREE Patterson can still smell the smoke.

Even though it's been two months and she's moved into a new apartment since a house fire destroyed just about everything she and her 5-year-old daughter owned, she's still reliving the nightmare - and facing the repercussions that come in the days, weeks and months after the flames are put out.

"I still smell fire when I come in here, but I don't know if it's just me," Patterson, 26, said yesterday as she sat in her apartment on a red leather sofa, one of the few things she could salvage after the fast-moving fire ravaged the house in Tioga where she lived with her little girl.

"I think I'm traumatized."

Patterson and her little girl, Euree, are still trying to piece their lives back together after the fire.

"It's tough. I have to start all over," Patterson said recently as she sat with Euree in their bare-bones newly rented apartment in the West Park section of West Philadelphia.

"Clothes are gone. Everything is gone . . . everything I didn't realize I needed," the young mother said. "I'll be going about my day, and it's like, 'Oh, I don't have an iron. I don't have pots.' "

Each year, hundreds of families in the Philadelphia area find themselves in the same predicament. From July 1, 2013, to May 30, the American Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania's Red Cross House, a disaster-recovery center at 40th Street and Powelton Avenue in West Philadelphia, provided shelter and services to 1,012 children and adults from 329 families that lost their homes to fires or other calamities, like collapses.

After a massive inferno July 5 on Gesner Street in Southwest Philadelphia swallowed eight rowhouses and tragically took the lives of four young children, the Red Cross helped more than three dozen displaced people.

In its first decade, from 2003 through last year, the Red Cross House provided shelter to 3,327 displaced families - nearly one family every day.

The lucky ones

Fortunately for Patterson, she was working at a school for her nonprofit organization and her daughter was in preschool on May 19, when the fire scourged the yellow-and-white-siding rowhouse they called home on Bailey Street near Allegheny Avenue. Firefighters controlled the blaze, sparked just before noon that day by a faulty electrical appliance, in 29 minutes, officials said.

"I know through this, I'm blessed," Patterson said two days after the fire as she sat in the playroom at the Red Cross House, flanked by bags of smoke-stained odds and ends she was able to recover, watching little Euree dress a doll.

"It could have happened while I was asleep, and we wouldn't have gotten out of there."

Every year, dozens of people in house fires aren't so lucky: Last year, 24 people died in house fires in the city, according to the Fire Department. So far this year, fires have claimed 20 lives, including those of the four children who perished in the three-alarm blaze on Gesner Street earlier this month, Fire Department Executive Chief Peter Crespo said.

Firefighters responded to 44,863 calls in 2013 for fires or related public-safety emergencies, like fumes or smoke, according to the department.

In Patterson's case, flames left much of her home gutted, with its back wall in the kitchen burned to nothing, windows broken out and walls splintered.

The fire also took away the sentimental, irreplaceable things for Patterson and her family, like her diploma from DeVry University, little Euree's toys and family photos of her grandparents - who first bought the house in the 1960s before her grandmother died of kidney cancer at 39.

"It was tough just seeing memories and money and everything just washed away so quickly," said Patterson, who has been visiting the house to see what she can clean up about once a week since the fire. "That was rough."

The damage to the house is about $30,000 to $40,000, she said. To make matters worse, the house, which is owned by Patterson's mother, was not insured. The policy lapsed about two weeks before the fire, Patterson and her mother said.

"It is so crazy, because I felt it," Linda Sherrill, 53, said recently in the dining room of her tidy Nicetown home, recalling how she nagged her daughter to renew the insurance policy.

"Every other day, I had been calling her, 'You gotta pay that insurance.' I felt it."

Even though Sherrill lives only about a mile from the house that burned, her childhood home, she still hasn't been able to bring herself to go see the place as a burned-out shell.

"I'm not even sure I want to go," she said.

Sherrill said her daughter, who started a nonprofit organization, WANPAE (Worry About Nothing Purpose is Alive in Everyone), last year to help teens find their path in life, is always on top of things. But in the midst of Patterson's busy life raising Euree and traveling between schools and events for the nonprofit, the insurance slipped through the cracks.

"It's the small things you neglect, the things you take for granted," Sherrill sighed.

Moving forward

Chad Dion Lassiter, director of the Red Cross House, where Patterson and her daughter stayed while searching for a new place to live, said his staffers often come across clients affected by fires who do not have homeowners' or renters' insurance.

"It is a common theme that we see," Lassiter said, adding that the Red Cross mandates that clients participate in financial-literacy and insurance workshops.

"It's something that can only enhance them, so that's why it's mandatory," Lassiter said. "That's the unique thing about the disaster-recovery plan . . . we're empowering families."

The Red Cross helps its clients keep their lives as normal as possible, offering meals and things like tokens or other transit options to help them get to work and school. Keeping up with her job and making sure that Euree's life retained some semblance of normalcy was a main concern for Patterson in the wake of losing her home.

"I definitely want to get back in the swing of things," she said at the Red Cross House days after the fire.

But the search for the mother-daughter pair's new normal hasn't come easily: Patterson, who hadn't before rented an apartment or home on her own, struggled to find a place where her rental application would be approved despite her lack of credit history.

She looked at nearly three dozen apartments around the city before finding the two-bedroom, second-floor walk-up she and Euree moved into in late June, on a quiet block near the city limit.

On a recent evening, as summer's oppressive heat gave way to a soaking thunderstorm, Patterson grinned as she sat in the new apartment, on her smoke-scarred red leather sofa.

Little Euree danced around the living room to music playing through her mom's iPhone, Yolanda Adams' "Never Give Up."

" So don't be afraid to face the world against all odds / Keep the dream alive don't let it die / If something deep inside keeps inspiring you to try, don't stop / And never give up," Adams' voice crooned as Patterson hummed along.

As she watched Euree twirl around the room, laughing, Patterson took a moment to reflect on how the fire changed things, taking most of their possessions - but not their lives or their spirits.

"It feels good just to go through that and bounce back," she said. "I feel like it's made me a better person."


To donate to Emsheree and Euree, checks or money orders made payable to Emsheree Patterson can be mailed to P.O. Box 29520, Philadelphia, PA 19144.

On Twitter: @morganzalot


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