Warehouse blaze incinerates household goods, ignites community support

Home is where you hang your hat.

But what makes a home? For military (and government civilian) families who move frequently, it isn’t the location of the home but the keepsakes, photos and family heirlooms they bring with them that makes a house a haven.

Those pieces of home are now sorely missed by more than 120 families in U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart who lost them all in a fire Oct. 30 at the German-owned Christ warehouse in Schwieberdingen.

Household goods shipments for outbound, inbound and deployed service members were destroyed in a blaze that took days to completely put out.

The estimated loss is valued at $6 million, according to Christ representatives.

“It’s hard to put it into words because there’s so much — things … that you can’t ever get back,” said a family member who lost collectibles, yearbooks, and books from her childhood in the fire. “It’s hard.”

To ease the recovery process, garrison officials hosted briefings Nov. 3 and stood up a Family Assistance Center — a one-stop shop for those affected by the warehouse fire — at Army Community Service.

In opening the briefings, USAG Stuttgart Commander Col. Carl D. Bird noted that losing all of one’s belongings is a “significant emotional event.”

“I want to say I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve got my wife here, Hope, [and] we talked about … what would it have been like if we lost everything we have accumulated in 25 years of military service … .” “We’re going to do everything we can … to get you through this and get you compensated,” he added. 

Garrison organizations, including Army Community Service, the Religious Support Office, Housing Office and Legal Center gave presentations on how to navigate the recovery process, from filing claims to applying for temporary furniture.

USAG Stuttgart Deputy Community Chaplain Lt. Col. Ken Bellinger spoke on dealing with the emotional loss of losing belongings, from the perspective of someone who understands.

“My family lost our household goods in the same fire that you did,” said Bellinger, who arrived in Stuttgart last month. “I also lost a little over 30 years of [my] professional library and ministry that was collected and came down from various family members.”

However, military families are resilient and internally prepared for a crisis like this one, he said. “You might say ‘I’m not really prepared for this. How am I going to get through this?’” Bellinger said. “All of us have experienced losses from PCS moves, when we had to say goodbye to people, family, things, stuff that got damaged in the move …

“I would suggest to you, if you look at what helped you in the past, you will see some stepping stones to how to get through this,” he said.

Affected community members included incoming and outgoing service members and civilians, and one retiree family. The outgoing families’ moves were not delayed; information on the fire was sent to their new duty station.

Incoming families affected by the fire were able to receive furniture from the housing office almost immediately, along with additional items not typically on the loaner list, according to Iris Jones, USAG Stuttgart housing chief.

The Stuttgart Legal Center allotted the week of Nov. 12-18 exclusively to counsel families affected by the fire and help them file individual claims.

Army Community Service set up a Family Assistance Center for three days at the ACS office to offer services such as counseling, a lending closet, crisis intervention and consultation, and Army Emergency Relief, to name a few.

On Nov. 5, garrison officials provided a bus tour of the warehouse site to families. During the tour, they were able to ask questions of Christ representatives.

“Some people were really upset [and] wanted questions answered,” said Spc. Keenan O’Donnell, a lab technician at the Stuttgart Army Health Clinic who lost his household goods in the fire. “For me, it was more of a trip to confirm … that the fire really happened, to see the site for myself.” What he saw was worse than he had imagined, he said.

“Steel beams were burned. Everything was charred black. It still smelled like smoke when we got there a week later,” O’Donnell said.

However, seeing the wreckage helped provide closure for many families, including O’Donnell’s. “It helped for a lot of people to see,” he said. “I’m trying to get to the point where I just accept the fact that it’s gone and move on.”

Likewise, Army Maj. David Bradley, another affected community member, said there are positive sides to an otherwise devastating event. “We have our health still, so we’re still good,” he said. “We’ll pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and drive on, start rebuilding.”

 For details on services and how to give or receive donations, visit www.stuttgartmwr.com/ACS or call 431-3362/civ. 07031-15-3362.