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HIGHLAND — As weary firefighters returned to the scene after a raging fire that displaced 45 people and claimed the lives of beloved pets, they were met with the full breadth of the wreckage.

“A lot of ice, a lot of destruction,” Highland Fire Chief William Timmer said. “The morning after a fire can be a pretty devastating sight.”

However, in the wake of the tragedy came countless helping hands.

“The community has come together stronger than I've ever seen,” said Kristin Marlow-Kelleman, executive director of American Red Cross of Northwest Indiana. “We have people walking off the street with laundry baskets of folded clothes, donations and we have a lot of church partners working with us. Folks are really trying to rally around these people.”

Of the 45 people displaced by the fire, six are Purdue University Northwest international students, Marlow-Kelleman said.

The Purdue University Northwest community has worked to make sure the students have what they need to recover form losing their belongings and housing.

“Foremost in our mind as a university is the safety of our students,” Douglas Clark, Purdue University Northwest director of strategic marketing & communications, said. “The fire that broke out at the Hampton in Highland Apartments complex Friday night displaced six Purdue University Northwest students. Since last night, several offices—including Public Safety, Dean of Students, Housing and Residential Education, and Global Engagement—have been responding to the immediate needs of those known to have been displaced or impacted by this terrible event. Four students are being assisted by PNW’s Office of Housing and Residential Education. Two have found other housing accommodations."

While all residents made it out safely, some pets perished in the fire including two cats and a bird, Timmer said.

“The ice and the cold is a hard part of our work,” he said. “This is a hard part of our jobs, too. I've got dogs in my house so I'm sensitive to furry creatures.”

Before Marlow-Kelleman could even begin making calls to organize the response Friday, dedicated volunteers were reaching out to her because they had just seen news reports of the fire, she said.

“They were out the door before I could even call them,” Marlow-Kellemen said.

American Red Cross workers were on the job until 1 a.m. and were back at it later Saturday morning into the evening.

“The phone has been ringing off the hook” with people wanting to donate food, clothing, shoes, furniture, household items and personal care items, said Chicago-based Blake Smith, who oversees nine churches for the Community of Christ, including the one in Highland.

Smith has been working for the church 25 years and says this is about the fifth time he has seen a response of this magnitude in the wake of a disaster.

“It is a large number of people who have experienced complete devastation,” he said.

Apartment management opened the community room so Red Cross volunteers could begin working with the families to make sure their immediate needs were met, including having a place to stay Friday night, she said.

One resident was on his way home Friday when he heard about the fire, Marlow-Kellemen said. Red Cross volunteers met him at a nearby restaurant that was open all night, arranging a place for him to spend the night.

“Our caseworkers would not go to bed before they met this man at a restaurant last night,” she said. “These volunteers, they did not wrap up until after 1 a.m.”

Eight Red Cross workers responded to the scene Friday. Another six were on site again Saturday morning, meeting with families to address immediate needs, including food, shelter and health care.

“Maybe they lost a walker. Maybe they lost a prosthetic,” Marlow-Kellemen said. Fire victims often flee without gathering prescription medications, hearing aids and other things they might need.

The Red Cross helps arrange for immediate prescription replacements and other unusual requests disaster victims have including emergency food, clothing and financial assistance are also priorities. Disaster mental health care is offered, too, because the residents have gone through a traumatic experience.

Depending on the residents’ financial status and insurance, recovery can take a long time. Red Cross workers help through that process, including putting the victims in touch with other agencies that can help them meet their needs, Marlow-Kellemen said.

“From here on out, we just make sure we are connecting them with those services,” she said. “Our role is to help each and every family navigate that path to recovery.”

The Red Cross is directing the fire victims to the Community of Christ, Smith said.

The church hadn’t planned to begin accepting donations Saturday but opened its doors because of the overwhelming response, he said. The church, at 8629 Kennedy Ave., will be receiving and dispersing donations to residents starting on Sunday. 

“This is what we’re supposed to be doing,” he said.

People interested in donating items for the fire victims should visit The Table’s Facebook page or call 219-237-8985.

Lincoln Street Christian Church, at 2420 Lincoln Street, is welcoming displaced residents 11:30 a.m.- 1 p.m. Sunday to pick up donated goods and eat. She said countless community members and business partners like Strack and Van Til's and Sanfratello's Pizza are working together to provide relief for the fire victims.

“I want to thank the community for stepping up,” Jana Szostek, of Lincoln Street Christian Church, said. “They're the heroes in all of this. We've got to share the love with each other. Highland has been tremendous from the firefighters and police to the citizens.”

A rekindle around midnight Friday caused firefighters to reconvene at the building to extinguish the flare-up before they headed to aid in a Schererville fire. Timmer, like many of his crew, didn't get rest until 4:30 a.m. Saturday morning. However, their work is not yet done.

The investigation will likely take a week, Timmer said, because of all of the households involved as well as the amount of wreckage at the scene. The building collapse on the south side will have to be cleared out and it's still too dangerous for residents to re-enter.

“It's going to be an extensive, long-term operation by the time all is said and done,” Timmer said.

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Porter County Government Reporter

Senior reporter Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.

Breaking News/Crime Reporter

Anna Ortiz is the breaking news/crime reporter for The Times, covering crime, politics, courts, investigative news and more. She is a Region native and graduate of Ball State University with a major in journalism and minor in anthropology.