Mother and daughter start their lives over after apartment fire
Ruth Helen Smith and her daughter Ruth Leilani Smith-Tellez escaped a fire in their old Coral Springs apartment this summer. The items on the table and the book that Leilani holds are some of the items salvaged.
(Sun-Sentinel/Judy Sloan Reich)
CORAL SPRINGS -- Ruth Helen Smith traced the puckered skin on her left forearm, a visual reminder of how close she and her daughter came to dying in an apartment fire last summer.
"A little bit more and we would have been gone, honey," said Ruth, 87, a widow faced with the monumental task of completely rebuilding her life for the second time in a year, this time with help from the American Red Cross.
Last spring, Ruth left her friends in her lifelong home of Chicago to live with her daughter in Coral Springs. Two months later the two women lost almost everything except each other in a June 25 fire touched off by a smoldering cigarette downstairs.
With smoke billowing outside the front door and flames burning through the floor of her second-floor apartment, Ruth had tried to carry her 9-year-old kitty Vanessa to safety. But the cat scrambled from her arms and darted beneath a bed where she couldn't be found.
So Ruth, who has always prided herself on her health and youthful looks, climbed over the windowsill of her second-story bedroom alone and leaped.
"The good Lord, he takes care of you," said Ruth. "He lets you go out the window. My girlfriend said, `He just carried you on down.'"
Ruth's daughter, Ruth Leilani Smith-Tellez, who goes by Leilani to avoid confusion, had recently been laid off from her job as an administrative assistant in a downsizing move at a telecommunications company.
She escaped the fire by crawling down the stairwell beneath thick black smoke.
Leilani was not hurt. But Ruth caught her leg on a wall and scraped it along the concrete as she descended headfirst.
Recovery after the fire
Both were taken to the hospital. Leilani sat in the emergency room waiting for oxygen and wondering if her mom was OK until she heard her voice from another room.
"She was flirting with the EMTs," Leilani, 51, remembered. "When I heard that, I said, `She's OK.'"
The leg still pains her, Ruth said recently at the dining table of their new two-bedroom apartment at Sabal Pointe in Coral Springs. Leilani has used her skill at combing thrift stores and sales to furnish their new space.
Framed family portraits, re-created from photographs sent by friends and relatives, decorate a side table in the dining room.
Leilani spread a newspaper article about the fire on a table she bought at Wal-Mart. The photograph showed a charred framework and ashes.
"It looks like somebody bombed us," Leilani said.
In all, 12 adults and four children were left homeless by the 2 a.m. fire that gutted their building at 11541 NW 44th St.
Ruth and Leilani try not to mourn the letters, photographs, clothes, furniture and Ruth's cat -- all taken by the fire.
They salvaged only a bag of winter scarves, a faux diamond bracelet, a treasured book, clothes reeking of smoke, photographs of Leilani's trip to Africa stuck together by soot and water.
The American Red Cross helped mother and daughter back on their feet with household furnishings, groceries, clothing and their first month's rent and security deposit. The agency has served more than 900 Broward County adults and children left homeless by fires and other disasters between January and November this year alone.
Despite her recent injuries and the stress of the fire consuming most of her possessions, Ruth, a former beautician, has the smooth face of a much younger woman. She dispenses spiritual advice and beauty secrets with equal fervor, prescribing faith in the Lord for getting through the rough times and egg white beneath the eyes for youthfulness.
Grateful for life
"God saved our lives, that's what I have to be thankful for," Ruth said.
Leilani is remaining active in her Bahai church and taking a computer repair class while she looks for work.
She is thankful for the help as she tries not to worry about the future and to let go of the things lost in the fire.
"You have to be grateful to be alive," Leilani said. "If I was dead, I'd lose everything anyway."
Christy McKerney can be reached at email@example.com or 954-572-2008.
©Copyright 2002, South Florida Sun-Sentinel (FL, USA)