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Lowell seeks way to direct fire aid

As donations rise, city plots response

Volunteers with the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association sorted donations.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

LOWELL — Community leaders in this old mill city gathered Monday to sort out a predicament that often follows tragedy — benevolence is in no short supply, but direction is tougher to find.

Stunned by the state’s deadliest fire since 1994, a broad array of nonprofit and social support groups mobilized to help victims of the inferno, which killed seven people and left more than 50 without a home last week.

FULL COVERAGE: Seven killed in Lowell fire

On Monday, representatives from aid agencies gathered to designate point people and coordinate plans to address a plethora of challenges, from finding permanent housing for fire victims to getting them new driver’s licenses.


“We need to get beyond just saying we support, and put our money and our time where our mouth is,” said Voop de Vulpillieres, deputy director of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association.

Speaking over the whir of box fans in a small conference room Monday, a few dozen community leaders — including the mayor, a fire official, and some health professionals — sought to channel the outpouring of support that has followed the blaze into an organized approach.

“There’s so many services available that they just need one place,” Mayor Rodney M. Elliott said, hoping to identify a simpler recovery process for victims.

Already, the people of Lowell have converted grief into action, donating enough material goods to fill a warehouse and a 45-foot trailer, said Donna Hunnewell, executive director of The Wish Project. She said her organization has “more than 5 tons” of clothing and some food on hand, and donations continue to pile up.

“Picture Costco,” Hunnewell said. “And it is full.”

The Wish Project plans to provide victims of the fire with preloaded pay-as-you-go cellphones and to furnish their new homes.

Many of those displaced by the blaze are Cambodian, and most are living out of hotels, paid for by the Red Cross until Monday. For the next few weeks, Community Teamwork Inc., a Lowell community development and housing organization, will pay for the temporary rooms, said Kristin Ross-Sitcawich, director of the group’s Housing Consumer Education Center.


During that time, she said, Community Teamwork employees will work with displaced residents to find permanent housing.

“We, as a housing agency, work on the mechanics,” Ross-Sitcawich said.

At the meeting Monday, Community Teamwork was identified as the best agency to spearhead the effort to help victims because it has access to the most financial resources, including state aid and a private fund set up in the last few days for donations to fire victims.

But Sitcawich said service providers from her group are less equipped to handle other concerns for displaced residents, including the emotional toll of the tragedy.

Torn Sak, his longtime partner Ellen Vuong, and three of their five children: Anthony, 12; Ryan, 9; and Sayuri, 7, died in the fire. The blaze also killed roommates Tina Christakos, 38, and Robert Downs, 72.

Community organizers at the meeting said they had been in touch with local funeral homes about providing free memorial services for those who died.

Molyka Tieng, an outreach coordinator for the Lowell Community Health Center, said her organization is open for victims in need of primary care and mental health support. After tragedies such as the fire, she said, people often exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.


“The challenge is more nightmares, waking up with nightmares recurring,” Tieng said. “That’s the normal process of healing.”

Many residents lost personal documents in the fire, and officials said they were working to quickly reprint paperwork. Elliott, the mayor, said the city clerk would reissue birth certificates at no cost, and a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation said officials would provide free duplicate licenses.

Some residents will need copies of their immigration files. A representative from US Citizenship and Immigration Services attended the meeting Monday.

As the community leaders met, investigators one mile away scoured the charred wreckage of the Branch Street apartment house in search of clues about the cause of the fire.

“We’re still progressing with the investigation,” State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan said.

The blaze struck a building at the heart of Lowell’s Ca mbodia Town.

Many victims of the fire remain afraid and confused in the whirlwind days after the tragedy, posing an obstacle for social service providers. Bopha Malone, board president for the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, said some are reluctant to ask for help from strangers. “They need a lot of Cambodian people to let them know it’s OK to go to counseling,” she said.

Translators from the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association will help volunteers and social workers overcome language barriers, she said.

“Now, we have some sort of structure as to what we need to do for these people,” Malone said after the meeting Monday. “We just want to create a sense of normalcy.”


Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at zachary.sampson@globe.com.