Oak Hill Residents Talk About Trauma They’ve Suffered Since Building Fire in May

Firefighters at the scene of the Oak Hill fire on May 24 Photo by Susan Baron

Joan Rayfield still can’t go home.

The Oak Hill Terrace Apartment resident was one of 150 people displaced after a two-alarm fire damaged the Penn Valley complex’s south building on May 24. She was also one of three people injured and hospitalized during the blaze.

“This was the most devastating thing that ever happened to me in my life, and I feel like I’m never going to get over it. It really scarred me, physically and mentally,” she said.
Her apartment is uninhabitable. When she went back to the building at the beginning of the month, she was shocked at how bad the damage was.

“There were no walls, no ceiling, nothing,” she said.

Four months after the fire, some of the physical damage to the building has been repaired, and residents, many of whom are Jewish, are slowly beginning to move back. Others will have to wait much longer before their homes are safe to inhabit.

“We have made significant progress and residents have begun to move back into their homes,” property manager Gary van Niekirk said in an email, adding that he couldn’t comment further on post-fire issues.

Susan Baron, an advertising account executive at the Jewish Exponent who lives in the damaged building, said Oak Hill’s property management sent out a newsletter that claimed half the displaced residents would be able to return at the end of September. She is not one of them.

Her unit was contaminated by smoke and failed two hygienist inspections before passing a third on Sept. 25. More cleaning and repairs are needed before she can move back in.

David Lane and his wife Patty Lane moved back into the building Sept. 26 after living in another apartment building they found through their insurance company. Their Oak Hill unit sustained minimal damage, but it still had to undergo several cleanings and inspections before it was declared safe to inhabit.

“First, they make you get someone to move all your furniture into the middle of the room, and they clean the ceiling, the walls and the furniture, if necessary. Then you have to put it back and they clean the middle of the room, and then they come in and they start testing,” David Lane said.

He said that while units like his on the fourth floor have been declared safe, the second floor was almost completely destroyed.

The second floor of the building Photo by David Lane

“To this day, if you walk in there you can take the elevator up to the second floor, and it’s cinder block. It’s just cinder block. Some of those people won’t be moving back for another six months.”

He added that many of his neighbors are afraid to come back.

“It’s emotionally distressing, and there’s a number of people that may not be able to move back to Oak Hill,” he said.

Resident Susan Gilmore said she was traumatized by the fire and feels anxious when she has to return to the building. She started seeing a psychiatrist and taking medication for intense anxiety.

“I’ve never had anxiety like that, ever. And I’m still suffering from that,” she said. “If I had a situation with anxiety, I knew exactly how to deal with it, but this is way beyond that.”
She stayed with her daughter’s family for six weeks after the fire before moving to an apartment complex in King of Prussia, which she found through her insurance company.
She has been frustrated by communication from the building management and condo board, which she described as unhelpful and inconsistent.

Rayfield is heartbroken by the loss of her home, which she bought with her retirement savings and renovated 11 years ago. She is still pained by the injuries she sustained when she collapsed in a smoke-filled hallway and had to be rescued by firefighters.

“My eyes were bright blood red for two weeks. It was killing me to even squint. My throat, I couldn’t even talk, it was so burned,” she said.

Her esophagus and vocal cords were damaged by smoke inhalation. Her rescuers had to drag her down a flight of stairs to get her out of the building, and the impact aggravated her arthritis, especially in her hips.

“Now I’m in a lot of pain when I walk,” she said. “I’m 80 years old. So, you know, it’s really left its mark on me.”

She has suffered from acute vertigo for several weeks, which makes any movement difficult. She also has nightmares about being trapped in the hallway, unable to find the exit. She is going to physical therapy for her injuries and speaking with a clinical social worker about the upheaval she has experienced.

She is not sure when she will be able to return to Oak Hill, but she expects it will not be until 2021.

“I feel like I don’t have control over anything anymore,” she said. “I’m praying that my insurance will cover it all. You know, it’s scary.”


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