(Four of the ten units affected by the fire that occurred at approximately 4AM on January 21, 2013 in the Rolling Green Apartment Complex .)
On the green grass behind the charred building that he once called home, Mark Metivier’s voice softened and his brown eyes dropped as he described the fire-kissed posters that line his bedroom walls. Metivier, a UMass student and victim of the January 21st Rolling Green fire said, “I can still picture the inside,”as the scent of burnt plastic passed through the air.
At approximately 4:00AM residents of Rolling Green were jolted out of their sleep to evacuate their homes. “We heard some ruckus outside and then there was kind of a bang,” said Metivier. The fire, which ignited shortly before, was just beginning its unforgiving rampage through the apartment complex.
“I grabbed my phone and a jacket and then we ran outside,” he said. In only his boxers and a black fleece jacket, Metivier braved the below freezing temperature. Standing with his roommates, they could only hope that their apartment would withstand “the smoke and a red glow from behind the building,” said Metivier. “I was shaking, more than the normal you’re cold shaking,” he said, “It was uncontrollable.”
“[My roommates and I] thought for a really long time that [our apartment was] going to be fine, but it just kept spreading,” explained Metivier. At approximately 7:00PM, several hours after the fire had been extinguished Metivier and his roommates were escorted into their home to search for any salvageable belongings. Metivier was able to rescue an electric razor and a clock that his roommate gave to him, “but that was pretty much it,” he said.
Adam Karp, another resident of Rolling Green, slept unaware that night of the tragedy occurring on the opposite side of the apartment complex. “I woke up and the power was out and I thought, ‘that was weird,’” he said. “Then, I got all of these texts asking, ‘are you okay,’” said Karp. By then Karp had seen the fire department in the complex, but nobody knew the extent of the damages. Now, Karp passes by the affected area every day on his way in and out of the complex. “It is a little strange to see, but I trust the management at Rolling Green and I don’t feel unsafe,” he said. “It’s weird to think people used to live there though,” said Karp.
Taking the life of one student, and the prized possessions and peace of mind of many others, this fire shocked the Amherst community. Then a natural question arose. How will the community come together to aid the displaced residents, including two families and 22 students from UMass Amherst?
Following the fire, Rolling Green offered available units to those affected. Metivier and his roommates were given apartment number one near the entrance to the complex, which looks directly out toward the 10 units involved in the fire. Additionally, the American Red Cross gave the victims $250 each to buy food, blow up mattresses, and clothes, as needed.
The first night, “the new apartment was empty and I was exhausted” said Metivier. “I went to bed with no problems,” he said. This peaceful sleep did not continue for long though, as about a week later, Metivier and his roommate woke up at approximately 4:00AM every night. “I figured it was the new environment and crappy mattress, but then it dawned on me that it was 4:00AM every single night,” said Metivier.
The fire impacted the roommates significantly more than they anticipated. However, they did not seek help from resources offered by UMass. Rather, they tried to continue life as normal, attending school and spending time together. The roommates then began to replace belongings. First with wicker outdoor chairs from their parents, then new televisions, beds, clothes, and computers, until eventually, their new apartment “started to seem more like home,” said Metivier.
Metivier’s response is one of many responses from those who witnessed the Rolling Green fire and experienced traumatic loss. According to Nupur Jain, a psychological counselor for the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health, or CCPH, at the University Health Services of UMass, every individual’s reaction to such an event will differ. “There is no right or wrong way to behave after you have experienced a trauma,” she said.
In hoping to maintain the psychological health of those individuals affected by the fire, CCPH offered its services. Students can seek individual counseling, meetings for grief, stress reduction, and living with loss, as well as requesting outreach services such as workshops on coping. Many affected students have been using the available options, and psychologically benefiting as a result.
Some students may “have post traumatic stress disorder, flash backs, difficulty sleeping, and even bad dreams or nightmares,” said Jain. “They may be constantly feeling like they’re in danger even though the event has passed, or having feelings like a loss of control,” she explained. As a result those affected may isolate themselves, be angry or impatient, or even self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. A better option is to ask for help. “Students who use the resources available to them demonstrate signs of strength…it takes a lot of courage to admit ‘I can’t do this right now, and I need help,’” said Jain.
In moving forward from this event as a community, it is important to note that students who were not directly impacted by the fire may still contribute to the healing process of those affected. If a friend or loved one has a sudden change in behavior, “reaching out to them is key,” said Jain, “sit your friend down and say, ‘these are the behaviors I noticed. I’m worried about you and I want to know what’s going on.’” It may be the very invitation your friend was waiting for to express his feelings.
Others will convey their feelings through their actions. Metivier stood on the lawn behind his old unit, and staring up through his bedroom window he expressed powerful feelings before uttering a single word. The metal surrounding the glassless window was blackened, framing the clear blue sky because the roof was missing. The white blinds were melted, and the silver gutter hung down haphazardly.
“I think about what the apartment used to be,” said Metivier. “It’s tough because it was home, and I can see it every single day as I walk by.” Though the community has continued on around him, Metivier and his roommates have a stanch reminder of their experience daily. “We can see our old burned apartment, and all the other ones too…There’s just no getting around it,” Metivier said disappointedly.