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Victims of Bartlett Ave Fire Still Waiting on Benefit Funds

By Joe Durwin
Special to iBerkshires
09:31AM / Wednesday, January 04, 2012
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Victims of the Elmwood Court fire last May say they haven't seen anything from a fundraiser that was held for them.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — While community efforts to aid the tenants displaced by the pre-Christmas Plunkett Avenue fire have been loudly praised, some victims of another much-publicized fire last year may not have been so fortunate. 

Some tenants of the historic Elmwood Court apartment building on Bartlett Avenue, which was devastated by fire on May 14, 2011, say they never received any of the money, clothing and other items donated at a fundraiser also held at Chameleons nightclub in Pittsfield.

"It's been seven months, and I haven't received anything," said William Massacani, who lived in Apartment 2 in the building at 149 153 Bartlett. 

Following the fire, Chameleons nightclub publicly offered on Facebook to host a benefit for those affected by the blaze, which displaced all of its more than 40 residents in 24 apartments. The benefit was held on May 28, featured a live band, and cost $10 to attend. Attendees report it was significantly less crowded than the more recent fire benefit on Dec. 27.

"After the benefit, myself and numerous other people called them [Chameleons], even left them messages on Facebook," said Massacani. "They kept telling us they were awaiting a list of names from the Red Cross, when they could have just called the landlord, and he willingly would have given over all the names."

Another tenant, Amanda Rae Busch, who lived in the apartment most directly below the origin of the fire, also said she has not received anything from the benefit event.

"I haven't heard anything since that night," said Busch, "They took down our information the night of the benefit, those of us that were there. I know at least one person brought something specifically earmarked for me." 

Chameleons owner Don Sweener said everything raised at the May benefit was turned over to the Salvation Army for distribution.  

"We had no concrete list of who was in the apartments at all," Sweener told iBerkshires. "Nobody came forward to us with any information as far as who actually lived there. We actually had some people coming in saying they lived there, when actually they didn't."

Sweener told iBerkshires "the banks, and the authorities, and even the Fire Department, they said, 'Hey, just give it to the Salvation Army, let them distribute it,' because no one was forthcoming with information."

"There was tons of clothes, and stuff like that, that was donated. I think the amount that was actually collected at the door was a little over $500," said Sweener. 

In contrast to the more recent benefit event organized by Andy Poncherello, Sweener said of the May benefit, "Nobody official, nobody political was involved in that, we just opened our doors, and collected the clothes and the money and gave it to the Salvation Army. And we've told people that countless times, as far as what has been done."

"As far as how it was distributed, I don't know. We told people where to go, and that was it."

Multiple tenants of 149 Bartlett said this is the first they've heard of that. 

Ann Di Nicola, said she contacted the nightclub repeatedly about the benefit and never received a response. "I called them, I left messages, I actually hand wrote a letter with my address, my daughter's address, my phone number. I never got any response. Never."

Di Nicola said her daughter commented on the club's Facebook profile about the money from the benefit, only to find herself defriended. While looking into it, Di Nicola said she had seen Facebook comments from several other tenants inquiring as well. Currently, no comments about the benefit are to be found on the nightclub's Facebook from the weeks following the benefit. Nor were there any posts to be found by the nightclub itself regarding the results, announcements or directions for the victims of the fire.

Di Nicola told iBerkshires while she had received $180 from the Salvation Army, she believed that this was before the Chameleons benefit, and drawn from funds donated by local banks and businesses. She said that Chameleons never referred her to Salvation Army, nor responded in any way.

Berkshire Bank Foundation President Peter Lafayette confirmed that $1,000 was given by the bank to these aid efforts, and other businesses are known to have contributed funds as well.

As for confusion about the identities of the tenants, Di Nicola says "All they had to do was talk to Cavalier Management. It was in all the news articles, that Cavalier Management owns the building. It was on the sign in front of the building, or they could have asked the fire department who manages the building. It was all they needed to do."

Pittsfield Salvation Army director Maj. James Fletcher said he's just arrived in July, taking over well after the event took place, and was not personally familiar with the situation, though he promised to look into it.

A call to Cavalier Management was not readily returned.

Pittsfield Red Cross's new director of disaster services, Thomas Pfeifer, said none of the people who were involved in relief efforts for the Bartlett Avenue tenants back in May are still with the organization, so there was limited light he could shine on those efforts. He believed that they had been confined to aid given just following the fire. 

"I'm not aware of any connection between Red Cross and the Bartlett Avenue fire victims other than the immediate emergency relief given," said Pfeifer. That relief included some prepaid Visa gift cards distributed to tenants to help them purchase clothes and other immediate essentials lost in the blaze.

Busch and Massacani both gratefully acknowledged the help that Red Cross had given in the early aftermath of the fire. 

"The Red Cross was awesome," said Busch. "Above and beyond, they called later to check up and everything.  Beyond the modest financial help, it was also very comforting."

All three of the tenants who spoke to iBerkshires expressed dismay over the handling of the nightclub fundraiser and subsequent communication with tenants.

"I feel like something should happen about this, no matter what. If lawyers have to be involved, then maybe it has to come to that," said Massacani.

Even the smallest contribution from the benefit fundraiser would have helped, said Di Nicola, who spent four months sleeping on a friend's couch following the disaster, but at this point it's the principle that most bothers her.

"First of all, I feel like it's false advertising. Secondly, it gave me hope. And then to not even get a phone call back," she said through tears. "It's not right. It's just not right."



Update, Jan. 4, 2012, 10:19 p.m.: After checking internally, Maj. James Fletcher has reiterated in an email his belief that the Salvation Army was not involved in relief efforts for the Bartlett Avenue tenants. With regards to funds from the benefit in question, "No one of our staff is aware that we ever received any such funds. We have not been called to provide services for the fire victims."

Fletcher said it was possible that their organization and the Red Cross had become mixed up. "People often confuse our agencies."

Indeed, tenant Ann Di Nicola called contacted us Wednesday to clarify that she had meant to say the money she received just following the fire had been from the Red Cross, not the Salvation Army. This corresponds to accounts of other tenants of 153 Bartlett Ave. 

Since the publication, an exchange on Chameleons Facebook has attracted additional individuals who say they were tenants of the fire inquiring about benefit funds. The nightclub defended its actions, saying they were unable to obtain names from either Red Cross or Cavalier Management.

"I am sorry for everyones losses, and never have been involved in that kind of fundraising, before I really had no clue what to do. The Salvation Army accepted tons of donations of items from us and the money, I am sorry if it was never distributed," the nightclub posted on its Facebook. Chameleons once again stated that the funds and "tons" of other material items were handed over to the Salvation Army. "The Salvation Army on Dalton Avenue accepted our donations after we were turned away from the one on West St."

Nonetheless, the nightclub has offered to compensate any former tenants who come forward to the nightclub with proof of residency, in a proportionate amount to what they say was generated in cash donations at the May 28 event.

"Little over $500 was raised. When divided out by the 40 people living there, it comes out to $12.50 per person. Because we feel so bad for this and want to help everyone out. Please stop by with a valid ID and a copy of a May 2011 utility bill of yours while you were living there. And we will give you $12.50. This is the best way we can help to make this right."

Chameleons is located at 1350 East St. For hours, contact information or additional comments from the establishment about the fundraiser, see its Facebook profile


Tags: fire,   fundraiser,   homeless,   

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