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Community pitches in to help families displaces by fire –

by Terri Hogan
Senior Staff Writer
On the very frigid evening of Jan. 5, Ellen Kankhwende was at the movies with her son when an unknown number showed up on her cellphone.
She ignored the three calls, but then she received a text message. It was the fire department.
When she called back she learned there was a problem at her house on Softwood Terrace in Olney. Her brother, who lived with her, had been taken to the hospital and she was told to go there.
Kankhwende purchased her townhouse, the center unit in a row of five, in 2007. She lived there with her two adult brothers, an adult sister and her 12-year-old son.
On the evening of the fire, Kankhwende’s brother was the only one home.
Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services spokesman Pete Piringer said a call came in at about 7:15 p.m. from another resident, reporting a fire on a deck.
Piringer said investigators determined the fire began in the center townhouse and originated in the fireplace before spreading to the adjacent units.
“The cause was the misuse of the fireplace — flammable liquid was used to restart,” Piringer said. “[Residents] left the door open on their way out.”
Kankhwende’s brother suffered burns on his hands and leg. He was transported to MedStar Washington Hospital Center, but released early the following morning.
Kankhwende recently returned to the charred remains of her home.
“I wanted to go apologize to my neighbors,” she said. “It was an accident, but I feel really bad about what happened.”
Her family is temporarily staying with relatives in Kensington while they wait for housing.
She hopes to stay in Olney, since her son attends Washington Christian Academy.
“The house is a total loss and will have to be rebuilt,” she said. “No one has told me how long that will take.”
She said she is particularly heartbroken for her son, since it is the only home he has ever known.
“The photos and sentimental stuff are all gone,” she said.
She has obtained some donations provided by the community.
“We need everything — toiletries, clothes — but we just don’t have room to store stuff,” she said. “Hopefully we will soon.”
Despite the trauma of losing everything, Kankhwende is touched by the support and is grateful to those who have donated items to her and her neighbors.
“I just want to say thank you very much,” she said. “I am very overwhelmed by the support from everybody in Olney, other areas and Washington Christian Academy. I haven’t cried yet. The support from people, even strangers, has been amazing. I just don’t know how to say thank you and express my gratitude.”
She thanked the Rev. Leslie Klingensmith of St. Matthew Presbyterian Church in Aspen Hill “for donations and just holding my hand.”
She also thanked “my entire family and friends. And to Michelle Wilgenburg, my son’s best friend’s mom, who started a GoFundMe account and got all kinds of donations.”
And then there are the firefighters.
“They worked really hard, and things could have been worse if they didn’t work diligently,” she said.

Fighting fire and freezing temperatures

The two-alarm fire brought more than 100 firefighters to the scene to battle the blaze under harsh weather conditions.
Piringer said ice was everywhere, the air temperature was 10 degrees and the wind chill temperature made it feel like minus-5 degrees.
The total damage is estimated at $1.4 million. The fire left all five homes uninhabitable and about 20 residents displaced.
Piringer reported some minor injuries to firefighters, but none were serious.
Sandy Spring Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mike Kelley said having to withstand the bitter cold, the response from the men and women of Sandy Spring as well as surrounding jurisdictions who assisted was remarkable.
“It was one thing to face a fierce firefight, but add to that the cold, wind and ice and it’s amazing there were no serious injuries,” he said. “All the crews performed their assigned tasks with discipline and as safely as possible.”
Kelley said he received an email from one of the neighbors on Softwood Terrace who described the response as “unbelievable” and praised the first responders for keeping the residents and other houses on Softwood safe.

A community responds

The morning after the fire, Jenni Davies, an agent with Re/Max Realty Centre, began a collection of gift cards at her office for the fire victims.
“I did it on behalf of our office because I know our agents like to help the community,” she said.
The gift card collection resulted in about 80 cards for clothing, household goods and restaurants.
Davies said the Olney Lions Club donated $500, which will be distributed evenly to the five families impacted by the fire.
“One little girl dropped off a teddy bear that she had purchased with her Christmas money,” Davies said.
Donna Robinson lives across the street from Softwood Terrace and watched in horror as the fire raged.
She didn’t know the families, but she has since met them all.
“They seem to be taking it well,” Robinson said. “Maybe they are still in shock or denial.”
Robinson first contacted the American Red Cross Disaster Program to learn what support was offered to the families and how she could help.
She began collecting items, including clothing, toiletries, pet supplies and household goods.
“Everyone wants to help,” she said. “There has been a huge outpouring of support from the neighbors and the community.”
Robinson began collecting donations in her home and then moved the items to the Homeland Village community room. As the number of donations continued to rise, she knew she needed a larger, permanent solution.
Kim Bryant, director of Ross Boddy Community Recreation Center, agreed to collect items for the fire victims at the center in Sandy Spring.
As of The Greater Olney News press time last week, the families were housed temporarily in hotels or with relatives, with limited storage. Once they move into semi-permanent housing, they will need almost everything.
“I want to keep the collection open through March, so once they get into homes, they can come back and get what they need” Bryant said. “The response so far has been awesome. For now, we need clothing and toiletries. One family just had a baby girl, so they could use baby items.”

Donations can be dropped off at Ross Boddy Community Recreation Center, 18529 Brooke Road in Sandy Spring. For hours and other information, go to http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/rec/where/centers/ross.html.

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