The Aftermath of a Fire

By Briana Duggan

When Bishan Etwaroo left his Bronx apartment one morning in March to take his children to school, he closed the door to his apartment without thinking twice, without knowing that he was also closing the door on the life he knew.

A fire two hours later ripped through the family’s third-story apartment. The heat blasted out the windows, charred the furniture, and left all of the family’s belongings in a blackened, soggy mess.

“Everything that I worked for it just disappeared and I didn’t even see it all happen,” Bishan said. “I left house in the morning and I go back four hours and everything was ash.”

Arson or not, a fire puts a hold on life. In the months following the fire, Bishan Etwaroo, his wife, and two young children were sent on a series emotional turns and insurance hoops that replaced the family’s home life with something unrecognizable.

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Once a Home, Now Rubble

The unfortunate reality of a house fire is that little can be recovered. Those things that were saved from the flames tend to be ruined by the water.

Hangers, soggy masses of clothes, and pieces of the ceiling lay on the soaked couch. Several relatives and friends squished through the carpet and dodged piles of ashes, searching to find those things that could be salvaged.

As Bishan’s wife Lathmie searched through the rubble, the thing that caught her eye was not so much the peeling walls, the soaking carpet, or the busted windows. What caught her attention was a pair of blackened children’s books tucked beneath the remains the television stand.

She picked them up, looked at her neighbor and asked, “What am I going to tell the library happened to these books?”

A Temporary Home from Home

Bishan, Lathmie, their 6-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son moved to a motel room in the Bronx, about 7 minutes from their old home, paid at first by the Red Cross and later by their insurance company.

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The two-bed motel room was the Etwaroo’s bedroom, living room, kitchen, and study room. One evening, about three weeks after the fire, the family had just eaten dinner from the beds, it was time for the children to do their homework and Bishan was tired. These days, it was difficult to think of anything other than the fire.

“Everything is stressful—you can’t think straight,” Bishan said, a television playing in the background. “You’re at work and thinking about it all the time. You’re distracted but you have to just learn to keep going.”

His daughter interrupted him—a question on her math homework. Nine was more than seven, he answered, and then continued talking. His children had been okay at first, he said, but recently they reality of what they’d lost had begun to sink in.

“They’re starting to get that they lost stuff and they’re starting to ask questions like why did the fire start?” he said, “Why did it have to be our apartment?”

At the same time, Bishan was trying to answer his own questions. He wasn’t sure if they’d be able to go back into the apartment and wasn’t sure where he’d go otherwise. At $1,000 a month rent for a two-bedroom apartment, he was scared he would not find anything comparable in the area.

And he still didn’t know what had caused the fire. Between work, picking up the children from school, and dealing with insurance companies, he hadn’t been able to leave work to pick up the fire report.

It had been 16 years since Bishan first stepped foot in America from Guyana, and he had arrived back to square one.

“I don’t even have a plate or a spoon,” he said. “It’s like I have to start from zero again.”

Moving On and Moving Back

Fire marshals determined that the cause of the fire was electrical, sparked by a lamp in the living room. And the good news was their home would be recovered, after all. Two months since the fire, all of the Etwaroo’s neighbors were back in their homes and their old apartment was being renovated for their return. Bishan and his family had returned to the building as well and were staying in one of the empty apartments on the first floor.

Etwaroo’s $20,000 insurance policy would help them get back on their feet, although it still didn’t totally cover his lost property. He cringed at the $6,000 now charred sofa set he is still paying off.
Life is beginning to go back to normal for the Etwaroos, but still Bishan said the fire has left its marks on him. He said he worries about the fire every morning before he leaves for work.
“That’s not going to go away,” he said. “That’s going t o stay with me. Every time I go to the store to buy something, I’ll think maybe I’m going to lose it again. That is always going to be with me.”