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Community comforts fire victims

Eveline MacDougall on accordion and others in her chorus play for people displaced by the Mill House Apartments fire staying at the Quality Inn in Greenfield.Recorder/Paul Franz

Eveline MacDougall on accordion and others in her chorus play for people displaced by the Mill House Apartments fire staying at the Quality Inn in Greenfield.Recorder/Paul Franz

GREENFIELD — Ethel Wheeler hasn’t forgotten what happened at about 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 10, but for a few moments this week, she and some of her friends and neighbors put aside thoughts of the fire that left more than 15 of them temporarily homeless and sang Christmas carols with the adult and young members of the Story Share Home School Collective.

Mill House Apartments fire victims, who gathered in the breakfast room at the Quality Inn, where they are staying until their apartments are cleaned and renovated, shook Christmas bells and belted out “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” like they hadn’t a care in the world.

“This is amazing,” said Wheeler of the more than two dozen adults and children who gathered to support victims Monday night.

“This is what being a community is all about,” said Christopher Williams, a personal care assistant who said he spends a lot of time at the Mill House with a client, and who said he has gotten to know many of the other residents there because of the time he spends there. “This was the least we could do.”

Williams was at the Mill House on the night of the fire and helped several residents get out of the building.

And, “the least” turned out to be two dozen community members spending time with victims, bringing them pizza and drinks donated by Big Y Supermarket and sharing a little holiday cheer.

Members of the collective also brought a bag of clothes with them to help those who escaped the fire with only the clothes on their backs.

“The hardest thing about all of this was having to call my six grandchildren and tell them they aren’t getting Christmas presents this year,” said Wheeler. “But this, tonight, just might help us heal a bit.”

It was in Wheeler’s and Beth MacDonald’s third-floor apartment that the fire broke out that evening. The cause of the accidental fire is still under investigation and undetermined at this time, according to Greenfield fire officials.

Mill House Apartments at 75 Wells St. consists of single and double apartments for elderly and low-income residents.

Donna Gilchrest, who lives just below Wheeler and MacDonald, said she had to leave her apartment because of all the water damage.

“I haven’t had a chance to assess my losses yet, but I stood at the door and it looks like someone threw a grenade into my apartment,” she said.

Gilchrest, who lives with her daughter in the Mill House, said she moved into the Quality Inn on Dec. 11 at 4:30 in the morning.

“It’s nice to have a place to stay, but it’s crowded and difficult to live in one room with another person,” she said. “They say we should plan on being here through the holidays.”

Gilchrest said it’s the little things she misses, having had to leave her home in such a hurry.

“I get out of the shower and realize I don’t have Q-tips,” she said.

Gilchrest said she will still go to the Salvation Army store on Hope Street to pick up some Christmas presents, like she had planned before the fire, but won’t need to pick up the turkey she was going to get from the organization.

“I have no way to cook it,” she said.

Tina Minnich said her apartment was also water damaged. She lives on the first floor of the building.

“I was actually one of the lucky ones, though,” she said. “The bottom part of my wall may have to be replaced, but that’s it.”

Minnich came out on Monday night to support her neighbors.

“I think it’s awesome that so many people came here tonight to support and help neighbors through this difficult time.”

MacDonald said she was thrilled to learn that Eveline MacDougall, who is the longtime director of the Amandla Chorus, helped organize the sing-along.

“We needed this,” said MacDonald. “I don’t know where we’re going, but we’re sure not lost with caring people like this looking out for us.”

John Conant, another resident of the Mill House, said his apartment was not damaged, but he wanted to be there Monday to support his friends.

“We have to take care of each other,” he said.

The collective concluded its somewhat impromptu concert with “Silent Night,” and then let victims get at the two party pizzas waiting for them.

“This is very sad,” said MacDougall, before the collective started to sing its last song of the evening. “You’ve lost a lot of things that are important to you. Please let us know if we can do anything else.”

MacDougall told victims that she understands there is no good time to be driven out of one’s home, but said this time of year must be toughest.

“We are one big family,” she said. “Remember that people are there for you.”

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