Branch Street Fire Thoughts: Am I a Rubbernecker?

Most readers by now know about the fire that claimed the lives of four adults and three children in the Lower Highlands, a very dense, primarily Southeast Asian-American neighborhood. It was the deadliest Massachusetts fire in twenty years. The fire occurred at 77 Branch Street, a three-story, circa-1890 structure according to the assessor’s database. Almost sixty people lived in the building.

CMAA Branch Street Fire Incense/Candlelight Vigil

The candlelight vigil drew Lowellians from both inside and outside the neighborhood.

It’s difficult to write about tragedy without feeling as if you’re taking advantage of the victims. I didn’t know anyone who lives in the building; in fact, I barely know anyone who lives in that neighborhood. Who am I to talk about the event?

It was that feeling that made it a difficult decision to attend the candle/incense vigil quickly organized by the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association (CMAA). Ultimately, we did. As we walked through the tangle of buildings, we noted that we don’t visit the neighborhood enough, and I continued to wonder if I was showing solidarity or merely invading and rubbernecking.

When we arrived, a mixture of people in suits and streetclothes talked solemnly in several languages, all looking at the burnt shell of the building. Many of the 200 attending held sweet-smelling incense; others held small candles. The fire had peeled away the vinyl siding to reveal detailed, decorative woodwork underneath. However, the structure has been totaled, scheduled for demolition on Tuesday. I can only imagine it will leave a scar for some time.

The snippets of conversation I overheard overwhelmingly consisted of greetings and life updates, the stuff of normal small talk between folks who don’t see each other as often as they would like. We did see a few folks we knew, and we made similar small talk with them. This is why I ultimately felt it was good to come: we were, at least for now, a part of the community. Even if we didn’t know anyone affected by the fire, we knew people who knew people. It’s impossible not to.

News crews at candelight vigil for Branch Street fire

I’ve never seen so many news crews in Lowell in one place.

We heard the monks pray for the victims, but comments from the Mayor were drowned out by news helicopters and the murmur of the crowd. In fact, it was astounding to see so many news crews. Even my parents in Illinois received news about the fire. These moments sometimes make me reflect: so many people are struggling and dying every day, but only a sudden catastrophe attracts our attention. It’s why it’s difficult not to feel like a rubbernecker. It’s why, as long as I live here, I’ll keep trying to be part of the community through good times and bad, and why I encourage others to do the same.

I don’t have anything to add to the conversation about the cause of the fire or local media’s reaction. Dick Howe has an interesting perspective in his week in review: the fire was bookended by reports of gunshots and a fatal stabbing, and the conversation about violence continues. So although we should discuss building codes and sprinklers, it’s important to remember that “…the prescription for reducing violence and crime isn’t all that different from what’s needed to prevent a recurrence of Thursday’s tragic fire.”

Woman with donation box at CMAA vigil Branch Street Fire

A donation box was passed around at the vigil. There are many ways to help, including donation at the Wish Foundation or volunteering (see leftinlowell.com)

Both crime and improving the housing stock, Mr. Howe argues, require reducing poverty through connecting families to a growing economy. An especially heartwrenching write-up by the Boston Globe highlights Mr. Howe’s point: Torn Sak, who lost his life along with three of his children, reportedly did not have a job because he “could not read well.”

If you’d like to help and don’t know how, Lynne L. has a good rundown of what’s needed and how to donate at leftinlowell.com. For out-of-towners, the easiest way to donate online is through a GoFundMe page set up by the CMAA.

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