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Canes, walkers, clothes: Donations overflow for Barclay Friends nursing home fire victims

High winds hampered the investigation Sunday into last week's fire, which hospitalized 27 residents and displaced more than 100.

Darlene Short, right, volunteered Sunday at a donation drive organized by the Good Will Fire Co. in West Chester for victims displaced by the Barclay Friends nursing home fire Thursday.
Darlene Short, right, volunteered Sunday at a donation drive organized by the Good Will Fire Co. in West Chester for victims displaced by the Barclay Friends nursing home fire Thursday.Read moreFRANK KUMMER / Staff

Ted Hartz had not even officially opened the bay doors of Good Will Fire Co. No. 2 in West Chester early Sunday morning and donations had already started arriving by the trunks full: canes, walkers, socks, coats, underwear, adult diapers.

To meet the rush, volunteers hurriedly set up cardboard boxes on tables and began labeling them as SUVs, sedans, and small cars pulled up with whatever donors thought seniors suffering through a catastrophe might need.  They also had to scramble to find a warehouse to handle it all.

Donors came in response to Thursday night's five-alarm fire at the nearby Barclay Friends senior living facility, which left more than 100 residents displaced and 27 residents hospitalized. Local officials on Sunday still were unable to say what caused the massive blaze or how many residents remain unaccounted for.

Fire investigators, police, and Chester County officials were at Barclay Friends Sunday. Charlene Hennessy, a spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), said it was doubtful that the agency would release any information related to the investigation until Monday.

She blamed high winds for hampering investigative efforts that required cranes.  However, one crew with a cherry picker did hover above the burned remains of a portion of the Barclay Friends complex, located just off Franklin Street.

At the firehouse, Hartz said previous experience enabled him to quickly organize a donations drive for Barclay Friends. With others, he had undertaken similar efforts for victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.  A group of volunteers led by Hartz and Dawn Cruse call themselves Trucks2 and created a Facebook page. Hartz said the small group filled trailers with supplies within 24 hours after those storms.

"I said let's do something for Barclay," he said.

Trucks2 contacted Barclay Friends representatives to get an idea of what type of supplies their residents might need. They had planned to open the firehouse doors from 9 a.m. through 7 p.m. but were overwhelmed by the response, saying they might have to suspend the drive early.

As she glanced around at tables of boxes shortly before 10 a.m., Cruse said it was likely they would hit capacity much earlier than expected – and indeed they did.

"We were guesstimating we'd get about 100 to 190 people making donations," she said.

Tom Short, a statistics professor at West Chester University, said he and his wife, Darlene, had just moved to the area from Cleveland. He saw the ambulances taking the seniors to the university during the fire and knew he wanted to help. The couple had already had experience helping seniors.

So they arrived at the firehouse early Sunday to help with crush of donations.

"I knew how to organize," Short said.

"We just want to help out," his wife said. "We printed out a list of things that were needed."

As she spoke, Kara Kim and her son Ryan, 11, were arriving with bags of goods.

"We brought some clothes and toiletries," Kara said. "We saw a list. We wanted to do something to help."

More neighbors were arriving as she spoke – and the doors had barely been open an hour.

The firehouse drew so many people,  traffic police were called into handle the flow of vehicles.  Organizers had to close the doors at 3 p.m.  In the meantime, they scrambled and found a warehouse to store the items, which Barclay Friends family members will pickup Monday.

"At any given time we had 30 volunteers working at both places sorting," Cruse said.

The volunteers, which included Barclay staff and nurses, worked until 8:30 p.m. Sunday.