Craig Zimmermann plays with his daughter, Rylie, 4, (above) in one of the community areas on Cox North’s L wing, just days after a fire damaged the Missouri Hotel. The Zimmermanns were among several families displaced by the blaze who spent more than a week living at Cox North.
When a fire at the Missouri Hotel threatened to force dozens of families into the street in the early morning hours of Jan. 20, leaders at CoxHealth saw an opportunity to live our vision of being the best for those who need us. It’s a vision that doesn’t stop at our own hospital walls and the disaster created a community emergency with plenty of people in need.
Dr. John Duff recalls watching the news that Friday morning as he was getting ready for work. He remembers thinking to himself: “I sure hope they have a place to stay.”
Not long after that, Dr. Duff received a call from the Greene County Health Department, where staff members were working to find temporary housing for the residents. Of particular concern were the families with young children.
“We knew it would be best for those families if they could live together and with more privacy than a temporary shelter such as a gymnasium could offer,” Dr. Duff says. “This is a community need that we’re uniquely positioned to help with because of our presence and history on the north side.”
By 10 a.m., the wheels were in motion to set up temporary shelter at Cox North. Tyler Hedden, vice president of Clinical Services, began coordinating with Environmental Services and Facilities Management to assess what kind of space could be made available.
The L wing made the most sense, offering roughly 25 rooms that were being used for storage. As Incident Command was established, crews from Environmental Services, Engineering, the City of Springfield and City Utilities all went to work clearing the space and bringing in beds. Staff from the ER and Volunteer Services prepared to assign rooms and register residents.
“We became the ‘Cox Hotel.’ This is not our typical job and it was so impressive to have it set up so quickly,” Hedden says. By 5:45 p.m., the space was ready and residents began arriving. By 8 p.m., more than 90 people were settled in for the night, allowing CoxHealth leaders and Missouri Hotel staff to breathe a sigh of relief.
“It’s a scary thing when you have this many families with nowhere to go,” says Chuck Cribbs, case manager with the Missouri Hotel. “Cox was so good to respond and get bedding and furniture in place in just a few hours. We’ve had great cooperation with the hospital Security staff, helping us manage the logistics of getting people in and out safely and keeping track of everyone.”
Springfield firefighters stopped by Cox North to visit children and their families at a special event honoring the first responders who battled the fire.
More than half of the residents staying at Cox North were children, ranging in age from 10 days to 17 years old. The hospital offered a safe, secure environment that allowed school-age children to remain in classes, with busses picking up and dropping off at the Division Street entrance. For younger kids, the Red Cross provided toys and entertainment in community areas on the L wing.
For the families, the temporary housing at Cox North was a blessing.
“It’s been good, we’re just glad we have a place for the kids,” said Craig Zimmermann, who was staying on the L wing’s third floor with his daughter, Rylie, and his wife, Audra. Rylie had just turned four the day of the fire.
“We’re thankful they brought in toys for the children,” Audra said. “We weren’t able to bring any of our toys, we just grabbed the kids.”
Over the next week, the families settled into a somewhat regular routine with meals provided by the Red Cross and the Franciscan Villa. Volunteers from the Red Cross and the Community Emergency Response Team worked alongside CoxHealth volunteers, Security, Engineering and Environmental Services staff to make the temporary space as comfortable as possible. Overall, Missouri Hotel officials say the week went well as everyone pulled together to make the best of an unfortunate circumstance.
After a week of cleanup and repairs at the Missouri Hotel, the space was ready for families to begin returning. By Jan. 31, Missouri Hotel case manager Ellen Boswell was packing up the last of the items on the second floor and reflecting on the past week’s experience:
“We’re glad for the opportunity to get to know the hospital staff. In the community, there are some negative connotations about the Missouri Hotel – that everyone is a substance abuser or a ne’er-do-well. But it’s just people over there – young families working to make it.”
Hedden says being able to help those families was a good experience for staff members as well.
“It’s been great to provide solace for people who have had some bad breaks,” he says. “It’s satisfying to help out at a time when their world, which was up in the air to begin with, came crashing down.”
Want to help?
Residents are back in the Missouri Hotel, but there is still a need for financial support. You can help by visiting thekitcheninc.org and clicking on the “Donate” button. On the next page, click “Fire Relief” for a list of immediate needs. You may also call the Missouri Hotel at 837-1500.