The residents of 14 W. Main Street in Alexandria finally got the chance to return to their apartments on June 29, nearly one month after the building went up in flames on May 30

On the overcast Saturday morning, they anxiously gathered in front of the building next to a rented U-Haul, parked outside to haul salvageable furniture and personal belongings.

Children ran up and down the street and tenants greeted each other as some tearfully prepared themselves for what they would find in their former apartments. 

Brian Hammond, an Alexandria resident organizing the donation drive for the displaced renters, lent his screwdriver to unscrew the plywood off the doors, revealing the dark interior stairway. Flashlights were passed out to anyone venturing upstairs, since the building power was shut off.

Emily Barrell was one of the tenants living in the building. She came with her mom, who she’s been staying with, to see what she could salvage from her apartment. 

“I have wonderful family who is helping me out right now,” Barrell said. “If it wasn’t for them I’d be in a bad situation.” 

She found a new apartment in Newark that she’ll be able to move into this month. 

“It’s the only affordable place I could find to go,” she said.

Barrell was at work when the apartment building caught fire, and only learned about the incident through a Facebook post while she was still at work. Firefighters were able to save her parrot and her shih tzu, Scooter, during the fire.

According to Alexandria Police Chief Dan Bunting, the cause of the fire is still unknown. Bunting confirmed the fire started in apartment G, and said law enforcement is no longer investigating the scene. However, the property owner’s insurance company is still investigating the cause of the fire. 

Apartment G was once home to Jacki Byrd, her three sons and her boyfriend, Greg. Everyone was out of the apartment when it caught fire except her puppy, who passed away. 

“Me and the boys and Greg only had the clothes on our back,” Byrd said. 

The family is currently staying with Byrd’s sister in Newark. They were able to salvage some of her oldest son’s belongings, since his room was the furthest from the fire. They were also able to save a couple of small items like family photos. 

But for now, Byrd said, her family is “surviving.” 

Hammond has been gathering donations for the victims of the fire since June 1. No one knew what the residents were going to be able to salvage from the fire, so Hammond was able to collect clothing of all sizes, shoes, furniture, food, electronics, school supplies, and hygiene items.

“Everything you can imagine has been donated,” Hammond said. 

Pastor David Klawitter of Alexandria United Methodist Church, Minister Kevin Hull of the Church of Christ at Alexandria and Pastor Brian Potts of Alexandria Baptist Church all wanted to help however they could. 

“Members of the congregation and the leaders of the churches have all been phenomenal in assisting the families through this,” Hammond said. 

Hull reached out the first night and offered space for a drop box. Klawitter and Hammond worked together to turn the lobby area of the United Methodist Church into a space to hold all the donations. 

They’ve all been helping out with picking up and dropping off donations and assisting the families in allowing them to access any of the donations at almost a moment’s notice, Hammond said. 

According to Hammond, donations have slowed down recently. There is no permanent place in the Village of Alexandria that collects donations for individuals in need. The Johnstown-Northridge Community Food Pantry is the closest resource to Alexandria, and they have donated food and grocery gift cards to the apartment residents. 

Every week, Hammond helps to split the monetary donations into five equal amounts for the displaced families to get back on their feet. Those funds have been used to purchase food, clothes and even pay security deposits — anything to get them to the next week. 

“The goal has been to make it sustainable for them, where the money is continuous until they’re through this,” said Hammond. 

One of the people helping to organize the effort to remove items from the apartments was Aaron Parks, the property manager of 14 W. Main Street, who works with CENTURY 21 Frank Frye Real Estate. 

For the past several weeks, Parks has been staying in contact with the tenants and notifying them about the many people entering the property, which has included insurance inspectors, fire inspectors, engineers, police, and more. 

“There’s a lot of hurdles I wasn’t aware of that we had to jump through before we could even let the tenants back in,” Parks said.

For people like Jodi Foster and her son — living in a Newark motel since the fire displaced them — those hurdles kept them in the dark and without any sense of when they could retrieve their belongings. 

“I don’t understand why everything had to take so long for us to get back in,” Foster said. 

Foster called this apartment her second chance. She and her son were evicted around Thanksgiving before they found this apartment and now once again, they’re struggling to find anyone who will rent to them. 

“Trying to get through this had been emotionally challenging,” Foster said. 

“To find something affordable, I’m going to have to pretty much move to Egypt,” she added. “To find something close to work, I’m going to have to sell my soul.”

The community has been helping her out a lot, whether it be through the church donations or money given directly to Foster at her work at Ross’ Granville Market. 

Needless to say, it’s been an emotional process for Foster as she prepared herself to go back and see the fire damage. 

“I’m taking the things I can wash. I’m not even taking my clothes. I’m just starting over. It is what it is,” she said. 

Caroline Zollinger and Ellie Owen write for, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is supported by generous donations from readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.