For those displaced by Drake fire, loss is tempered by gratitude

A young girl holds a baby.
Whitney Holley, 10, plays with 1-year-old Jordan Jones on Thursday at Bethlehem Baptist Church, which is serving as a temporary shelter for those affected by a Christmas Day fire at the Francis Drake Hotel.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

A common space at the downtown Minneapolis campus of Bethlehem Baptist Church has become something of a family room for dozens of displaced residents of the Francis Drake Hotel.

A Christmas Day fire at the hotel, which housed homeless and low-income people, sent more than 100 people to the church for shelter. Most of them lost nearly everything they owned. Yet many expressed gratitude that no one had died in the blaze.

“We all share something together right now,” said Torie Bounds, who had lived for three years at the Drake, working shifts at the front desk in exchange for reduced rent. “We all lost everything that we had, so we’re just trying to be strong together, you know.”

Bounds said his Christmas morning started with the smell of smoke.

“I wake up, I make sure it’s not in my room,” he recalled. “I looked out in the hallway, I saw the smoke coming. I woke my son up instantly. I told him to just throw on his shoes and let’s go. We didn’t grab anything, I lost money in there, all my clothes, everything that I had.”

Not everything — Bounds still has gratitude and hope. So do a lot of the other people here.

At the church, donated clothing is arranged by size on one side of the large space. Several tables are filled with food and drink. Kids are playfully scurrying about — running, snacking, repeating.

“They gave me a cot, new blankets and everything, hygiene kits, a safe place to sleep,” said Sonia Thompson. She’s lived at the Drake for eight months, but wasn’t home when the fire broke out.

“So I thank God for that,” she said.

Thompson was visiting her brother at a hospital. Left behind, and now gone, are things she’ll miss forever.

“You know, like photos and stuff,” she said. “Like sentimental stuff you can’t get back.”

Still, she’s thankful, and described herself as having “an attitude of gratitude.”

“If you don’t have an attitude of gratitude then you’re going to really get angry and it’s going to make things worse,” she said.

The Red Cross said 111 people stayed at the temporary shelter in the church Wednesday night. It’s scouting other locations that might work better as government social service agencies seek a long-term solution. There’s no shower at the current space — no privacy either.

Two people look at pieces of paper.
Red Cross volunteer Richard Underdahl-Peirce (left) and Terri Greenberg (center) coordinate at Bethlehem Baptist Church.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

“The first day or two, it’s just to give them at least some stability, a place to sleep, a place to put the belongings they do have and meals,” said Red Cross volunteer Richard Underdahl-Peirce, who was overseeing the temporary shelter. He said other services are available as well.

“If they have health needs, we have a health services department both through the Red Cross and with the county,” he said. “And if different individual problems come up, we’ll see what we can do.”

For 29-year-old Brittany Owens, the big need has already been met: “We’re happy that we’re living.”

Owens and her husband, with a 7-year-old and 21-month-old twins in tow, awoke to a Christmas morning nightmare.

“It was just that much smoke coming through our door, just coming through the hallway, thick smoke,” she said. “I’m talking about, like, we were gagging and stuff, trying to get down the stairs.”

Many people have donated clothing and other necessities such as diapers. The Red Cross says the best way to help is to make a financial contribution.

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