Seven displaced in house fire

Published 10:19 pm Friday, November 4, 2011

Firefighters remove their gear after leaving a house in the 100 block of Chestnut Street, where a fire displaced seven men living in the house. The cause of the Friday afternoon fire still is under investigation.

Seven people were displaced in a house fire that dealt a devastating blow to a local nonprofit organization Friday.

Suffolk Fire and Rescue units were dispatched to a structure fire in the 100 block of Chestnut Street at 12:36 p.m. Friday. All of the occupants had escaped, one by jumping out of a window. Firefighters quickly brought the fire under control and prevented it from spreading to nearby houses.

The house was providing shelter to men being served by the Better Man Coalition, which provides food and shelter to formerly homeless or incarcerated men in exchange for working at one of several “businesses” the organization has set up. Through working at the car wash, lawn care business, barber shop or home repair businesses, the men gain needed job skills and references they can use to obtain gainful employment. They also get help with financial skills, obtaining their GED and other needs. Donations for services at the businesses help provide funding for the organization.

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Better Man Coalition co-founder Darrin Holmes said seven of the men were living in the house.

“I’m trying to find somewhere for them to go,” he said.

Russell Brantley said he came into the house when he heard the smoke alarm going off and found a chair on fire.

“I tried to put it out,” he said. “I tried to smother the fire, but it didn’t work. The house ignited so quickly.”

Brantley became trapped in another room when the fire spread. He had to move the still-flaming chair to get past.

“I don’t want to fight no more fires,” he said.
Johnnie Babb, another resident of the house, became trapped on the second floor and had to jump out of a window into the arms of the other men.

“I was in the bathroom shaving my head,” he said. “I heard someone yelling and screaming.”

“My first mistake was going down the stairs,” he continued. “I didn’t know how bad it was.”

When he found the fire too bad to go out the front door, Babb went back upstairs.

“I felt a hand just lead me into the room,” he said. He wound up leaping from the window with no shoes.

The fire comes at the worst possible time for the fledgling organization, which already was struggling for funds because of slowing business at the car wash and lawn care businesses.

“Financial assistance is critically needed to continue,” Bob Battaglia, the other co-founder of the organization, said in an email earlier this week. “Your donations and contributions of money, clothes, equipment and supplies including lawn equipment, furniture, vehicles and food will be greatly appreciated and help to continue the project.”

To donate to the Better Man Coalition, drop donations off at 244 Carolina Ave. or make financial contributions to BMC Foundation at BB&T Suffolk branch.

The cause of the fire still is under investigation.