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Community rallies to help people displaced by helicopter crash

jojacobs@vagazette.com

Just as firefighters rushed to combat the blaze that erupted when a helicopter crashed in a Williamsburg neighborhood, so too have neighbors and humanitarians rushed to help displaced residents pick up the pieces of their lives.

An otherwise normal afternoon was shattered when a helicopter crashed into a condominium building in Bristol Commons, a neighborhood off Ironbound Road. The crash killed 91-year-old resident Jean Lonchak Danylko and the helicopter pilot. It also displaced the residents of 10 units.

Faced with this disaster, neighbors who were once strangers have come together to help those in need.

Margo Bridge has lived at Bristol Commons for three years. She didn’t know everyone who sought shelter in her home when a helicopter crashed just yards away on Sunday afternoon.

“It sounded like a bomb went off,” she said. “I came down and I looked out the door. It was flames.”

“People we’re just running,” she continued. “I opened my front door and I just told everybody to come. And everyone just ran in.”

Bridge bonded with her neighbors that day. That spirit of community is what residents hope will carry them as they support their neighbors in their time of need.

“It’s shameful half the people didn’t know the people in the building,” she said.“People walk around with cellphones in their face and they don’t know each other.”

She and other residents aim to change that. Bridge was among a handful of residents who crowded into the complex’s clubhouse Monday evening to figure out how to help those affected by the crash.

“We talked about getting to know each other better because we all kind of realized that’s very important. We talked about having the families get in touch with us to see what we can do to help them out,” said Simon Zagata, a resident who attended the meeting Monday.

The group is still formulating exactly what the residents displaced by the crash will need. With whole homes destroyed, anything would useful, Bridge said, suggesting gift cards to places such as Walmart and clothing.

The group hopes local businesses will take notice and chip in as well, Bridge said.

“Any help will be appreciated,” she said. “They have nothing. They lost everything.”

Bristol Commons hasn’t had to fend for itself. Red Cross workers were on scene shortly after the crash, handing out water bottles to first responders and residents.

Ten households were immediately affected by the crash. The occupants of eight affected units found shelter with friends and families, while the Red Cross provided shelter to the occupants of the remaining two units Monday. As of Tuesday afternoon, just one family was still utilizing shelter assistance, Red Cross spokesman Jonathan McNamara said. The Red Cross hadn’t received new requests for help as of Tuesday afternoon.

“We’re here to help them figure out what their next move will be,” McNamara said. “We’re serving as an advocate.”

The Red Cross assists with finding temporary housing and can also provide food, clothing and other household items. It can also help replace eye glasses and medications that were destroyed by the crash, McNamara said.

The Red Cross will continue to keep tabs on the displaced residents and render assistance as requested, McNamara said.

By Monday afternoon, more residents had been displaced because equipment required for the investigation had been moved into the complex. While the Red Cross contacted them, none sought shelter assistance. How many people were affected wasn’t available Tuesday afternoon, McNamara said.

The Salvation Army also came to the scene to provide refreshments and spiritual support to those affected, said Whitney Lind of the Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army has opened its Ironbound Road facility’s parking lot to residents. The parking lot is near the complex and provides a safe place for residents to park their vehicles if they have trouble finding a spot amid parked emergency vehicles and equipment, Lind said.

The Salvation Army also stands ready to provide financial or material assistance to those affected by the crash, Lind said.

While passing out water bottles Sunday, Salvation Army members spoke with residents, many of whom were watching firefighters combat the blaze and consoling each other, Lind said.

“Several residents were pretty shocked,” Lind said.

Among the dozens of onlookers standing in the glow of emergency vehicle lights was Benita Evans.

Evans lives across the street from the building that was hit, and while she said she didn’t know the people living there, the crash struck too close to home.

“I’m a little nervous. I’m next door and that could have happened to us. I’m shaken up and I feel bad for the people who lost their homes,” Evans said.

That knowledge that people affected have had their worlds turned upside down encouraged another resident to create a GoFundMe page.

Colleen Ziemba set up the GoFundMe page to provide financial assistance to the people displaced by the crash. The drive has a goal of $1,000.

“I feel like our neighbors are going to need a lot of help. Unfortunately I don’t know everyone’s names, but we could just divide the money amongst them,” Ziemba said.

The GoFundMe can be found at gofundme.com/bristol-commons-neighbor-relief.

As time goes on and residents take stock of their situations, Williamsburg Department of Human Services will be ready to assist residents, department director Peter Walentisch said. He added some people have started to reach out, but a specific headcount wasn’t available Tuesday afternoon.

The department has coordinated activity with the Red Cross, which partners with the city in disaster situations to provide first response to those in need. The city agency is able to provide financial and emotional support services to residents who may still need help weeks after the crash.

“People still have to sort things out and we’ll be there for them,” Walentisch said.

A full picture of how many people have been affected by the crash and to what extent won’t form for several more days. Displaced residents who thought they had accommodations may see those plans fall through. Residents who didn’t lose their homes but have been traumatized by the crash may not seek help immediately, Walentisch said.

“I think that’s just starting to sink in,” Walentisch said of the crash. “It’s a situation in progress.”

More information

To donate money to people affected by the crash, visit gofundme.com/bristol-commons-neighbor-relief.

To make other donations to Bristol Commons residents, call Margo Bridge at 804-815-8992.

To contact the Red Cross, call 757-253-0228.

To contact Williamsburg Department of Human Services, call 757-220-6161.

Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007.

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