As St. Paul fire crews doused the embers of a North End fire Wednesday that left three families temporarily homeless, I watched as a firefighter brought Tapay Pay a jar of coins salvaged from her home.

The woman, a Karen refugee from Burma whose family has been in this country about eight years, fought tears as she took stock of what the flames and water left behind.

There wasn’t much: a file cabinet, a purse, the jar of coins.

And where this family of 10 would live in the days and weeks ahead was uncertain.

So often, after this kind of event, we in the news media fail to find out how families go about picking up the damaged pieces of their lives.

Thanks to the heroics of Donnell Gibson, a passerby who stopped to alert Tapay Pay and her family to the quickly spreading fire next door, no one was hurt Wednesday.

But what now?

On Thursday, I found out.

Almost immediately, the Minnesota chapter of the American Red Cross stepped in to help the families displaced by the fire that destroyed one home, heavily damaged another and damaged a third.

Four families — totaling six adults and 13 children — are receiving both short-term and long-term assistance, said Lynette Nyman, a Red Cross spokeswoman.

It’s what they do, she said.

Last fiscal year, the Red Cross helped more than 2,500 Minnesotans with disaster relief, largely made possible by contributions from the public.

‘They have nothing’

Barbara Lawrence-Windholz, a teacher at Humboldt High School in St. Paul, was at the scene of the fire Wednesday, trying to comfort the family she has known for six years. She advises Kyaw Kyaw Htue, 16, and his twin sister, Khaing Thin Yee, in the National Honor Society.

The family is split up and staying with other families now, she said. But they have talked to their landlord, who will make another property available so the large family can stay together.

The twins turn 17 on Monday. Not a happy birthday.

“They are a very strong family, but they’ve been through a lot,” Lawrence-Windholz said. “They have nothing. Some of the kids didn’t even have their shoes. Thank goodness for the Red Cross.”

‘Something big’

And the man who saw the flames, stopped his car and jumped into action — what did he do the day after coming to the family’s rescue?

Gibson, 29, was back working with kids at St. Paul’s Teen Zone Thursday afternoon. Still, the father of four admitted, “I think I held my kids a little tighter yesterday.”

He’s not sure why he acted while others watched.

“I had no choice,” he said. “I just did what I thought anybody else would do.”

Gibson admitted that it started sinking in when his father called him later that night.

Until Wednesday, the most dramatic moment in Gibson’s life might have been playing basketball for St. Paul Johnson High School at its first state tournament in 80 years.

“It just shows you what it means,” he said. “My father always told me I would do something big.”


To donate to the Red Cross, call 612-871-7676.