WEST OCEAN CITY – The food pantry at Diakonia homeless shelter has reopened after a fire on March 8.
Around 9 p.m. on that Monday night, a small fire sprang up in a utility closet. When a bottle of Lysol fell off a shelf and punctured, the fumes were ignited by the pilot light of a nearby gas water heater.
Diakonia employee Lottie Shockley reacted quickly after hearing the small explosion and got the 19 guests present in the building out to safety.
Employee Thomas Purnell headed the other way and put the fire out with a fire extinguisher. He received minor burns trying to move the can of Lysol that started the blaze.
“The staff really did a great job,” said Diakonia Director Claudia Nagle. “It was their quick thinking that prevented a catastrophe.”
If the fire had sprung up overnight, when guests at the house were sleeping, the human impact could have been much higher, Nagle said.
The fire did have more extensive consequences than might be expected.
All non-canned food in the food pantry adjoining the utility room had to be thrown out because of potential contamination from the fire extinguishing chemicals.
“The dry chemicals went everywhere, so we had to discard everything that wasn’t sealed in a can,” said Nagle.
The worst part of clearing out the potentially chemically-contaminated food was having to discard donations from a recent trade show that had been dropped off just that day.
As a precaution, people also were not allowed to go into the room after the fire extinguisher was discharged.
“We couldn’t accept donations. We couldn’t distribute food,” said Nagle.
Food supplies for the guests at the shelter were also affected. The food pantry has been professionally cleaned since the fire and is safe for food.
While some cleaning supplies, like the fire-triggering Lysol, had been kept on a shelf in the utility closet because the building is “pressed for storage space,” Nagle said the utility closet would no longer be used for storage.
Over the last two weeks, the shelter, with assistance from the community, has been busy restocking the food pantry.
“We’re getting back to normal,” Nagle said. “The community has helped us bounce back. If it weren’t for the community I don’t know what we would do. The support has been really overwhelming.”
People requesting food at the West Ocean City facility since the pantry closed after the fire were sent to other local food pantries, mostly hosted by churches.
The re-opened food pantry at Diakonia will be open between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. for the next few weeks. The food pantry will be open longer hours in the future.
Nagle said that anyone who needs food outside those hours would still be helped.
“We’re not going to turn someone away,” she said.
Anyone can ask for food help at Diakonia. People do not need a referral from a social service agency.
The fire could not have happened at a worse time, Nagle said, with demand for food assistance extremely high.
“In the last quarter, we’ve seen a marked increase in the use of our food pantry,” said Nagle.
Over the last three months, Diakonia has distributed 3,000 bags of food. The food pantry typically distributes 5,000 food bags in a year.
“The demand for services has just been higher than ever. It’s just been awful for people,” said Nagle.