Two Warwick veterans who called the Westgate Condominiums home are now without possessions following the disastrous March 11 fire that destroyed their building.
But because of community support and assistance from the Johnston-based organization Operation Stand Down Rhode Island (OSDRI), their road to recovery is getting easier.
Donald Washington, 72, who served in Vietnam with the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division from December 1965 to December 1966, was in his second-story condo Wednesday when a fire alarm went off. He checked his apartment and found nothing, yet moments later a man banged on his door.
“He started yelling, ‘It’s a real fire, a real fire! Get out! Get out of the house,’” Washington said.
Washington then noticed smoke coming through his bathroom vent. He quickly got dressed and grabbed his coat and car keys. When he exited, he saw smoke billowing out of the building.
“It was about five minutes before the first fire truck came in. I jumped in my car to move it as it was right in front of the doorway and I knew firefighters had to get in,” Washington said. “When I walked back, everyone was out just standing and watching in disbelief.”
He watched the fire eat away at the building as it spread from one apartment to the next, until the whole third floor, and then building, was engulfed. He stayed onsite, confused and unsure of what to do, until about 10 p.m.
“I’m trying not to feel bad, because there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m just trying to stay cheerful,” Washington said.
His daughter eventually reached him and arranged accommodations at the Airport Sheraton for three days. His sister in Tuscon, Ariz., owns the condo and shares expenses with him. Their renter’s insurance has extended his hotel stay until Tuesday.
Of Native American descent, Washington is a member of the Wampanoag Tribe, with the given name of “Lone Wolf.” His collection of Native American art, genealogy, history and documentation were all destroyed by fire.
“If I just stay calm, everything will fall into its place. I’m alive,” he said.
Thirty-six year old Jason Boulet, a Massachusetts National Guard Military Police Specialist from 1999 until 2005, who served a year in Afghanistan beginning in 2002, is a single dad living with his six-year-old son, Liam.
Originally from Cranston, Boulet is a graduate of Cranston High School East and a student at Bryant University finishing his degree. He was on spring break for the week, and home alone sleeping when the fire broke out.
“I heard alarms, but there were always alarms being tested, so I put a pillow over my head and went back to sleep,” Boulay said. “Then I heard someone yell. I looked out in the hallway still half asleep and saw someone with a suitcase and a woman said, ‘The house is on fire!’”
Thinking it was only a kitchen fire, Boulay ran back into his home, which he rented, unsure of what to take from it. He gathered up his passport and a few other items, put his shoes on and left.
“Everybody there just couldn’t believe the situation,” he said of the outside scene. “The person I heard yelling that woke me was a lady that pulled off of Route 2, she saw smoke while driving back from the gym.”
Boulay has begun the process of looking for a new place to live, but is realizing that his and his son’s journey ahead is a long one.
“It’s starting to set in,” he said. “We had fish that passed. Fish and Chips and Donatello were there names. It’s all just stuff that we collected. But I realize I’m not getting any of that stuff back.”
OSDRI Director of Supportive Services John McDonough learned about Boulay’s plight via social media, and knew his organization could help.
“The first veteran we identified was Jason through Facebook,” McDonough said. “He had gone on Facebook and stated he had been in a fire. A veteran who saw that post contacted us. We reached out to him through that site, and we brought him in.”
OSDRI – a non-profit whose mission is to service homeless and low-income veterans by providing life essentials such as housing, employment, financial assistance and benefits coordination – has ensured that Boulay, his son, and “Lone Wolf” won’t fight through this event alone.
Both men have been provided with clothes, food cards and fuel cards, and will have access to the organization’s food pantries. OSDRI has already started the casework process for them, and has negotiated with Comfort Suites for a reduced rate for hotel stays.
“Starting Friday evening we’ll keep [Boulet] in his same hotel, but we will pick up the tab through veteran grants that we have,” McDonough said. “He’s scheduled to be there for 14 days. We’ll then re-evaluate and see how things look, and if we have to push it out further, we will.”
Because Boulet has his son, he qualified for a special grant.
“This organization has just been amazing to us,” Boulay said of the support he’s received from OSDRI.
“When a veteran becomes homeless, and they’re eligible for VA services, we’re allowed to put them in a hotel with minor dependents for a certain period of time,” McDonough said. “We’re utilizing those resources to stabilize his housing, at least for now.”
Washington was visiting the VA Medical Center in Providence when a nurse there informed him of OSDRI, who he then contacted for assistance. After a caseworker was sent to screen him, he was brought to the organization, and will be provided the same type of living arrangements as Boulay. That resource comes directly from OSDRI, thanks to contributions and community donations.
“Typically, and thankfully, we don’t deal with a lot of these types of situations,” McDonough said. “Usually this requires collaborating and combining several resources to put the whole picture together. We’ll advocate for them with our sister organizations to generate items like furniture, kitchen utensils, things needed to get started again.”
One of the first things the organization will do will is help both men re-establish personal identifying documents, such as birth certificates, along with military records.
“I’m a 36-year veteran in the United States Army, retired,” McDonough said. “It’s days like yesterday and today that make the whole thing worth it, just to be able to help someone and to see their gratification and the burden it takes off them. The simple things we have that we take for granted, in one day can all be gone.”
For information on Operation Stand Down, and to assist with their efforts, visit www.osdri.org or call 401-383-4730. They can also be found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pages/Operation-Stand-Down/213962841128.
UPDATE: Additional note: A GoFundMe account entitled “Boulay Family Fire Fund” has been established for Jason Boulay at http://dm.gofund.me/ojts2c