It was just over six months ago when a tragedy amplified deep issues within the Greensboro community.
A kitchen fire quickly swept through a low-rent apartment, claiming the lives of five young children - siblings who were refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
But the circumstances leading up to the fire live on in the fractured lives of the surviving parents and in their adopted community. Our series, "Unsafe Haven," looks at what happened and the unanswered questions that remain.
"A Charred Brick Façade"
The back-alley parking lot of the sprawling, spartan, 42-unit Summit-Cone apartment complex is riddled with deep potholes and broken glass. Cars wind their way between overflowing dumpsters, abandoned furniture, and small bands of young refugee children.
While their parents are off working long shifts at factories and poultry processing plants many miles away, these kids are left largely unsupervised; zooming up and down the dirty sidewalk on makeshift scooters, and occasionally onto one of the city's most heavily trafficked intersections: Cone Boulevard and Summit Avenue.
Across the courtyard, plywood boards cover the blackened windows and rear door of Apartment G, the site of the early morning fire, and the home of Mugabo Emmanuel and his wife Faraha Lucy.
The first 911 call was placed at 3:54 a.m., and the fire department arrived on the scene five minutes later. Records show that emergency crews immediately initiated CPR to four of the children. Two of them died later that day, and the remaining three died Sunday after being taken off life support at Brenner Children's Hospital.
For weeks after the fire, the front entrance to the apartment was covered with weathered sympathy cards, balloons, and handwritten notes. Today the only reminder is the charred brick façade and soot-stained pillars.
The fire department conducted dozens of interviews. It took months to investigate the unit's circuit breakers, smoke alarms, and stovetop burners. Finally, the cause of the fire was determined to be accidental due to unattended cooking. But the final report also states that “certainty may not be an absolute or without any doubts.” And accusations of a faulty stove—burners that would not shut off for hours—and an inattentive landlord continue to swirl.
“Killing You Little By Little”
Louis Mashengo is a Congolese refugee speaking out about living conditions at Summit-Cone. The former educator is soft-spoken, fluent in several languages, and a leader in the African community here. His cell phone is practically attached to his hand—constantly texting and advising residents, sometimes, he says, until 2 or 3 in the morning.
Much of the advice Mashengo offers comes from hard lessons he's learned from personal experience battling the property manager since his arrival here two years ago.
“If the landlord can't respond to what you need, it's terrible,” says Mashengo. “It's like the landlord is killing you little by little.”
He says he complained to property managers for weeks about foul odors at his apartment, and nothing happened. After two months, he and four other tenants signed a petition requesting that all 42 Summit-Cone units be inspected. It arrived at the City's Code Compliance Office, inspectors were dispatched, and they soon discovered major problems in his basement.
“It was too hard to prepare food here because of bad smelling” he says. “Sometimes you have to go and buy fresh air—money that maybe you could keep for other issues—because of the bad conditions. And sometimes the worms were coming from the basement because the basement was full of sewage.”
The Summit-Cone apartments are owned by Bill, Sophia, and Basil Agapion, and managed by Arco Realty. In August, after city code inspectors discovered 466 violations, the entire 42-unit complex was condemned. WFDD reached out to the Agapions on multiple occasions to request interviews for this story. Those requests were denied, but finally a written statement was provided through their attorney's office.
"Many criticisms we currently face are not factual or do not account for complicating factors. Regardless, we will continue to work to provide our residents with safe, affordable housing, to improve and maintain the properties we manage, and to serve our community as good corporate citizens."
It reiterates that the Greensboro fire department concluded that the fire was a result of unattended cooking by tenants. It goes on to say that Arco realty will continue to work to provide safe, affordable housing, and to improve and maintain the properties it manages.
“These People Have Suffered”
Emily Wright was a school social worker at Rankin Elementary School in Greensboro. She provided guidance and support for Mugabo Emmanuel, Faraha Lucy and their children from their first day of school.
“One was a first-grader and the other was a second-grader and they were little girls. When they came into the school they didn't have backpacks. They didn't have appropriate school clothing. They would be wearing pajamas and cowboy boots," says Wright. "So, I got to know the families, and this family has suffered. They have suffered unimaginably. And they continue to suffer.”
Louis Mashengo says the Emmanuels and the children's grandparents moved from Summit-Cone following the tragedy, and won't return. He says it pains him to send photos back home of his current surroundings.
"The way people—they treat America that is on top," he says. "But when you send a picture: 'Oh, my gosh! No, this is not America,' you know? Because, honestly, I can say, okay, in Africa, I've found some cities more beautiful than here. But [it] is in Africa."
Mashengo packs up his car and gets ready to help some friends find new apartments nearby. He'll serve as a translator and help with the necessary paperwork. Mashengo has adapted to this environment and says he's determined to lift up his fellow refugees from the DR Congo in their new home, Greensboro, North Carolina.