By Zandy Dudiak, Communications coordinator
As he was working at the scene of a fire June 2 at a Tarentum apartment building, Nick O’Clair thought he recognized a familiar voice from the weekly Pittsburgh Mercy COVID-19 Zoom huddle calls. In a brief moment of calm later, as they introduced themselves, Nick met the man with that voice— Mike Luxemburger—in person for the first time, along with another colleague, Cassie Nuzzo.
The three Pittsburgh Mercy colleagues put our mission and values in motion after fire damaged a 60-unit Tarentum apartment building on June 2. Cassie, a support specialist who functions as a social worker at the Rachel Carson Towers through the Allegheny County Support Specialist Program, and Mike, Intervention Program administrator, provided vital support to the approximately 50 people displaced by the fire.
At the same time, Nick, Unlicensed Home & Community Team lead with Mercy Intellectual Disabilities (ID) Services, was on the scene in his role as Volunteer Disaster Action Team coordinator for the American Red Cross Southwestern Pennsylvania and Greater Pennsylvania Region. The Red Cross team oversees recovery efforts for local and regional manmade and natural disasters.
As the residents gathered safely outside, Cassie and Mike collected their names, spoke to them about what they needed from their apartments, and then went inside to retrieve their medicines and other vital belongings. At the same time, Nick, walkie-talkie in hand, was arranging for bus transportation to the Days Inn in Harmarville, where he found temporary housing for the displaced.
“It was definitely quite an evening,” Nick says.
Firefighters contained the blaze to one unit, but smoke damaged the entire eighth floor of the 60-unit building. Both the seventh and eight floors sustained water damage. The building, managed by the Allegheny County Housing Authority, is home to about 90 people.
“It’s just a blessing that no one got hurt,” Mike says, although Cassie notes that some had minor throat irritation from the smoke.
Until the Red Cross arrived, Cassie says she pretty much just talked to the residents, calming and reassuring them. When it started to rain, the Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie #699 next door opened a back room for the residents to take shelter in, so that is where the Red Cross set up operations. The Red Cross provided for their emergency needs, including a credit card to cover food and supplies until they get back in their homes. When appropriate, the Red Cross is also handling casework and recovery planning.
Cassie notes that Allegheny Valley Association of Churches provided blankets to tenants who were cold and wet because of standing in the rain after evacuating. She says the group also regularly helps the tenants in other ways, such as a food bank and tax preparation services.
Oddly, there was a second fire the same night as the one in Tarentum at the Brackenridge high rise that Cassie serves. The Red Cross also housed that tenant at a hotel.
All but 20 residents from the seventh and eighth floors were able to return home on Friday, June 4. The others won’t be able to return to their apartments soon, so the county offered them apartments at other county housing units nearby that Cassie also serves.
“Cassie and Nick deserve all the credit,” Mike says. “The way she works is amazing. Everyone comes to her because they know her. Nick was so impressive. The Housing Authority staff was absolutely phenomenal, too.”
“It was really a community effort—the firemen, the medics, the housing authority staff, the Red Cross,” Cassie adds. “Everyone chipped in. Everyone was wonderful.”
One woman affected by the fire cried with gratitude as she told Mike about how when she had COVID-19, Cassie called every day and even went grocery shopping for her.
Pittsburgh Mercy has a contractual agreement with Allegheny County to provide support services at three high-rise apartment buildings in the Allegheny Valley, where Cassie splits her time, and two others in the Mon Valley that are served by another support specialist, Marquia Watson. Mike calls the two women “unsung heroes” who are constantly putting out other types of “fires.”
“They are so embedded in those communities—like a family member,” Mike says. “They are a great team.”
Marquia traveled to Tarentum on June 10 to assist Cassie with connecting clients to services that can replace the items they lost because of the fire, such as furniture, clothing, etc.
Nick will be leaving Pittsburgh Mercy in late July. While working for ID Services, he has been pursuing a PhD in epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh. Massachusetts General Hospital offered him a fellowship and he will continue his studies at the University of Massachusetts.
“I started my studies before epidemiology was cool,” he adds.
Nick got some first-hand, hands-on experience with his subject matter when he served on a special and elite team that provided compassionate care for those from our intellectual disabilities (ID) and mental health residential sites who contracted COVID-19 last summer.
In a twist of fate, as Nick departs, Cassie is planning to resume her training to be a Red Cross volunteer, something she put off during the COVID-19 pandemic to work weekends at Pittsburgh Mercy’s Winter Shelter.