Grieving father-turned activist will stage Saturday fundraiser
Jeff Block sat at a table outside Koffee? on Audubon Street, New Haven, at first quietly reminiscing about how he used to wait there for his daughter, Eva, to finish her dance practice with the New Haven Ballet.
But then he began to talk with great passion on the need to save lives through fire safety measures and educating the public about such procedures.
On Jan. 21, 2012, his daughter’s off-campus rental house near Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., caught fire in the middle of the night. She and two of her housemates died of smoke inhalation.
For a year or two afterward, Block said, “I was sort of lost. I probably had a nervous breakdown in the middle of that. I didn’t want to hear anybody or do anything.
“I had a job, I kept working, I had relationships. But something was missing. The passion in my life was lost. And I’m very passionate about most things. I couldn’t find that.”
But then Block started working with state legislators on passing and enacting into law a bill requiring that all people renting residential properties must be notified through their leases on whether there is a fire sprinkler system — and, if so, when it was last inspected and maintained. (It does not mandate that those systems be in place.)
The privately owned house where Eva Block was living as a senior at Marist College did not have a sprinkler system.
Connecticut’s law, similar to one enacted in New York state because of that triple tragedy in Poughkeepsie, took effect Oct. 1, 2015.
Last June, the same month the Connecticut law was passed, Block founded One Innocent Life, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to raise awareness among college students and their parents about the need for fire safety.
If you go to the group’s website, www.oneinnocentlife.org, you will see a statement from Block that as a result of the fire, “three innocent lives were lost: my daughter, Eva, and her friends, Kevin (Johnson) and Kerry (Fitzsimons).” All three of them were just 21 years old.
“My daughter died because she didn’t have a plan for what to do in the event of a fire,” Block wrote. “From the grief and from talking with survivors of the same incident, we came up with a shared goal: together, we will make sure that nobody else is to be in this situation without a plan, that no more innocent lives are lost to fires.”
Block and his former wife, Barbara Block, who together raised their three kids in Woodbridge, have chosen slightly different but related strategies to promote fire prevention. (They got divorced before the fire.)
Barbara Block has participated in the annual Fire Safety and Prevention Day at the Woodbridge Fire Department. This is a fundraiser held in Eva’s honor.
When I called Barbara Block to ask her about One Innocent Life, she said, “I think what Jeff is doing is a wonderful thing. I support it completely. If we can just save one life, we can make a difference. It’s a horrible tragedy we’ve been through; I hope no one has to endure what we suffered.”
She added, “We need to reach other young adults, make them aware and understand. And we have to let their parents know how important it is that when their kids go off to school, they’re in a safe environment.”
Jeff Block is now gearing up for One Innocent Life’s inaugural “Beat the Heat 5K (3.1 miles) Run/Walk” to be held June 18. The location is Woodbridge Town Center and day-of registration begins at 7 a.m. Block said the run/walk will start at about 8:30 a.m. It costs $25 to run it, $20 to walk it.
Meanwhile, Block continues to speak at meetings of fire departments and fire safety associations.
“It’s an emotional roller-coaster, constantly talking about it,” he told me. “I tell my story over and over again. I become emotional. But that’s what makes it real to people.”
During our conversation, Block managed to keep his emotions in check, even when I asked him what Eva was like. “She was still dancing at Marist but she went there for fashion design. She had some jewelry pieces that went into production. She had a business plan with her sister, Hannah, for clothing design.”
What father doesn’t love talking about his daughter? He continued: “She was a little bit of everything, what would be called ‘a Renaissance woman.’ She was a little bit of a hippie. As a teenager, she was shy and aloof. But at college, she started to blossom, using that freedom to explore who she was. She was just a loving, caring person.”
Block said the cause of the fire was never precisely determined, although it was traced to something that had been smoldering. “It could have been electrical. It could have been a smoldering cigarette.”
He said there were smoke detectors in the house but it’s not known how long after the smoldering began that they went off.
Four other young people in the house escaped with minor injuries.
Block said it has been “cathartic” for him to work on behalf of One Innocent Life. “Something has to be done so it doesn’t happen to somebody else,” he told me. “My goal is to save a life and never know about it.”
What do you do, he asked, if you’re in a building where a fire breaks out? “How do you react? What’s your plan? You should have a plan beforehand and generally we don’t. We don’t think it’s going to happen to us.”
Block said, “When I walk into a building, I think: ‘How do I get out of here? What’s the second way out?’ Because everybody else will choose the first way.”
Block noted young adults are even worse than older generations when it comes to safety awareness and having a plan of escape. “Students need to take responsibility. They have open candles and then they get inebriated and knock the candles over. Then they say: ‘How do I get out of here?’”
But Block also blames landlords for poor safety oversight. “Some of them ‘rack and stack.’ They’ll make an apartment out of anything.”
Moving forward, Block said, “I see this as a national organization in five-seven years. And I want this to live on after I’m gone. I’m building a ship that someone else can drive later.”
He noted that when he helped get the new fire safety law passed and formed his organization, he got his old passion back. “It lit my fire again.”
When I mentioned that this might seem an unfortunate turn of phrase, he replied, “Yeah! I tell people,’I’m running around with my hair on fire’ and they ask, ‘Is that a good analogy?’ But it is. I’m running around with my hands in the air.”
For information on the 5K (3.1 miles) run/walk,” visit https://runsignup.com/Race/CT/Woodbridge/BeatTheHeat5kRunWalk
Contact Randall Beach at firstname.lastname@example.org or 203-680-9345.