American Red Cross helps Elkhart residents recover after fires

Published: Apr. 17, 2023 at 8:21 PM EDT
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ELKHART, Ind. (WNDU) - Families affected by the fires over the weekend in Elkhart are still trying to pick up the pieces, but help is on the way.

Most people know about the American Red Cross’s work on the national level, but not many know about their work right here in our community.

The American Red Cross was founded in 1881, but on Monday, its northwest Indiana chapter was in Elkhart, helping families recover from this devasting event.

“On a single-family fire, we call volunteers, they go out, they help the clients,” says John Montgomery, Disaster Program Specialist with the American Red Cross Northwest Indiana. “On something this size, there are a number of us that show up because, if necessary, we open a shelter, which means we find a space, we put cots and blankets in it, so people have a warm, safe place to stay, and we get food for them because that is the main focus of the Red Cross; to feed and shelter in times of disaster.”

Over the weekend, fires rendered a building in the Highland Apartment Complex and a home on Prairie Street in Elkhart uninhabitable.

“It is a traumatic event, and as we’ve been told, it’s a normal reaction to an abnormal situation,” Montgomery said. “Having your home burn down is abnormal; having someone be upset about that is completely normal.”

They organized Sunday to have volunteers, and residents come down Monday to do the “intake,” or information gathering. They figure out how to help the residents through that information. Information includes basic demographics, like gender, marital status, and whether residents have children.

The Red Cross provides basic necessities like food, shelter, and clothing to assist those in need. They also focus on clients’ quality of life, like financial assistance, medical care, spiritual guidance, and mental health services.

They also provide blankets, comfort kits (toiletries), and smoke soap, which gets the smoke of clothing when added to your laundry.

Montgomery says the apartment complex’s management is working with residents to get them into vacant apartments on this property or a sister property. The Prairie Street family was able to stay with relatives or friends.

“We’re lucky here that the apartment complex is working really, really hard to make sure that the people have a new apartment, but now they’re in an empty apartment, not sure what they can get out of their old apartment,” Montgomery said. “So, that’s when the community help can come in and help them with furniture, with dishes, with clothing, with all of that stuff.”

The Red Cross partners with private, government, and community organizations to continue providing clients with long-term aid because, without community and volunteer support, the Red Cross could not assist in the capacity that they do.

“If we can figure out a way to help, then we do; the whole community and the community meaning the entire country,” Montgomery said. “Donating money, donating time, to help us help them.”

Montgomery also tells 16 News Now that volunteers make up 95% of the American Red Cross and that all heroes don’t wear capes; some wear red vests.

“And that’s the volunteers,” Montgomery said. “That’s the volunteers. As I said, 95% is volunteer-led; the work is done by the volunteers. The day-to-day, face-to-face, is done by volunteers. They are the ones that get up at 2 o’clock in the morning and go to a house fire and provide assistance and blankets and stuffed animals to little kids and a shoulder to cry on. That’s what our volunteers do every day. And they’re the heroes; I get to help, but the volunteers are the heroes in this.”

Speaking of heroes, Elkhart Fire Department’s Division Chief of Operations Dave Cushwa told 16 news now that the three firefighters injured during Saturday’s fire while saving a cat from the burning building are receiving antibiotics per their protocol and have follow-up appointments with their doctors.

“Apparently, that cat did not want to leave the apartment, but we got it out safely,” Cushwa said.

Both fires are still under investigation.

Montgomery joined the Red Cross in 2005. His first deployment was Hurricane Irene in 2011, but he says this is a family affair, as his mom’s first deployment was on 9/11.

Famed nurse Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881, starting with services to the armed forces that helped those harmed in war. That service still exists to this day.

There are four “legs” of the American Red Cross; blood donation services, disaster services, training services (CPR, babysitting, and lifeguard training), and services to the armed forces.

The American Red Cross is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit mandated by Congress if there is a significant disaster. The Department of Transportation also works with the Red Cross if there is an emergency transportation incident.

Montgomery says the Red Cross could always use more volunteers, so if you want to help families recover from disasters, go to and click on the “Volunteer” tab.

You can also contact the American Red Cross at 1(800) Red Cross (733-2767).

Original stories:

Highland Apartment Complex WNDU

New Details from two fires that happened yesterday in Elkhart.

Calls came in around 1:45 in the afternoon to the Highland Apartment Complex in the 2500 block of Links Drive.

Fire crews say the blaze had spread from the upper levels of the three-story wooden structure, and half of the apartments in the building were affected by either fire or water damage.

While no deaths were reported, three firefighters were treated for injury while attempting to remove a cat from one of the burning apartments, and one resident was treated for smoke exposure.

Cleveland and Osolo Township Fire Departments were also called to assist with the fire.

Prairie Street

Elkhart Fire also responded to a residential fire in the 1900 block of Prairie Street.

When crews arrived, they said visible fire and smoke were coming from the rear corner of the house.

The blaze was under control in about 20 minutes, and no one was in the home at the time of the fire.

The American Red Cross is aiding the residents affected by both blazes, and these fires are still under investigation.