Midnight Oil

My heart has been breaking for a while now, watching my beloved Romania swirl down the toilet thanks to years of incompetence, indolence, and apathy.

But nothing has hurt my heart more than a recent fire that broke out in Timisoara.

Instead of translating individual articles, I’m going to summarize the news stories found here, here, here, here, here, and here (all links are in Romanian).

On Wednesday night on Memorandum Street in the center of Timisoara, an apartment fire claimed the lives of four children. A fifth child and three adults were hospitalized for smoke inhalation and minor burns.

The deceased children were aged 4 months, 2 years old, 3 years old, and 6 years old.

The apartment that caught fire was in the “Elizabeth” neighborhood of Timisoara and was home to four adults and five children.

At the time the fire broke out, the eldest brother, age 14, was left alone in charge of taking care of his four younger siblings. The fire broke out when the eldest brother went to heat up some milk for his youngest sibling. He turned his back for a moment and saw flames.

The boy unsuccessfully tried to put out the fire with an extinguisher. He then ran to get help from the neighbors, but when they returned to the apartment, the smoke was too thick and so they had to retreat.

Seven ambulances and five firefighting vehicles responded to the scene but were unable to save the four younger children. The smoke on the scene was so thick that firefighters had to use special infrared equipment in order to navigate inside the building.

The elder brother as well as two (unrelated) adults were transported to the hospital.

The children’s parents arrived within 15 minutes of the fire breaking out. The father of the children was reported by neighbors as “smelling of alcohol.” The mother vomited upon learning that two of her children had been found burned to death [the other two were found dead shortly thereafter].

A firefighter who found the bodies later told the media, “I’ll never forget something like that as long as I live. The images of those burned children haunt me, and I keep thinking, over and over, if there was something else that I could’ve done to save them.”

Police have opened a criminal case on the charges of manslaughter and destruction of property.

Christ, what a tragedy.


Now, here are some additional facts:

1) The apartment where they lived was being rented out illegally, i.e. “unreported” so that the landlord could avoid taxes. Obviating a rental contract also has the “side benefit” of avoiding any government safety regulations concerning adequate living standards.
2) The surviving child (a boy, age 14), was heating up his sibling’s milk on an “improvised stove.” The word in Romanian (soba) implies that this was a jury-rigged heating device of some kind rather than a cooking stove.
3) The mother wasn’t home because she was working an “illegal” job. She is currently on paid maternity leave from her regular job, but she still felt the need to work an “under the table” side job in order to make ends meet.
4) Doing the math, the mother (age 32) was obviously a teen mother if her oldest child is 14. Having an additional four kids to take of must have been an unbelievable strain, especially since she had to work an illegal side job just to support them.
5) The man reported as the father of the children is never mentioned as being married to the children’s mother. The neighbors also said he is “a regular drunk.”
6) Child protection services had already previously investigated a charge of neglect against the mother. Investigators said they made monthly visits to the home and spoke to the children. They reported that the house was clean and the kids were dressed in clean clothes, etc., so there was no pending case.
7) The mother had been using a webcam of some kind to monitor the kids remotely via her phone while she was at work.

Putting it all together, a grim picture emerges.

A young woman, age 18, became pregnant but never married, effectively stopping her from any further education or career development. She then had several additional kids and struggled to make ends meet. The father of (at least some of) her children ended up being a worthless drunk who wasn’t responsible enough to stay home and watch the kids.

She got a legal job, but it didn’t pay enough, so she had to work an illegal side job. She had to live in a tiny, two-room apartment with her five kids, worthless “partner” and two other unknown adults. The apartment was rented “under the table” and did not have a proper kitchen, so they had to improvise a stove.

Despite all of the above handicaps, she somehow kept her family fed, clean, and healthy enough that child protective services were satisfied that there was no negligence or abuse in the household. And when she absolutely had to leave the children alone, she did the best she could by remotely monitoring them via a webcam and her mobile phone.

When the fire broke out, despite the eldest boy going for help and the mother remotely alerted via her mobile phone, a thick, toxic smoke prevented the four younger children from being rescued.

Obviously, for a fire to be that noxious with thick, billowing clouds of acrid smoke so quickly after starting, something more than just milk or organic compounds (like wood and cotton clothing/bedding) was burning.

The Least Among You

Society and the government of Romania have failed this poor woman at every turn. We’ll never know how and why she got pregnant at age 17 or what her relationship was like with her (apparently drunken) partner, but it’s clear that this woman needed help. Assistance for the victims of domestic abuse is almost non-existent in Romania.

Despite the mother busting her ass to keep her kids clean, healthy, and well-fed, the only place they could find to live was an illegal sublet without a proper kitchen. The government knew that five young children were living there but did nothing to punish the landlord in any way for illegally renting out their substandard property.

The mother got a legal job, which came with regular payments when she was on maternity leave, but she still couldn’t make ends meet, so she had to find an “off-the-books” job.

Despite years of promises, the Romanian government still hasn’t increased child support payments to people like this woman with more than three underage children partly because landlords and employers regularly shirk paying taxes.

And now, the government is investigating her for manslaughter after four of her children perished in the fire.

Judgement Call

Look… it’s easy enough to place all the blame on this poor woman (she herself was crying, over and over, “Oh my God. This is all my fault” at the scene). Yes, she decided to get pregnant at age 17. She also decided to have five kids by the time she was 32. She furthermore decided to partner up with a useless man who was out drinking instead of watching the kids.

But placing all the blame at her feet is releasing the Romanian government from its responsibilities.

What help did they offer her when she became a teen mom? What help did they offer her with regard to potential domestic violence/abuse? Why was her salary so low that she couldn’t make ends meet? And what role does letting thousands of landlords across the country illegally rent out their properties play? Especially when those properties are clearly not up to code and renters are forced to use “improvised heaters” in the winter?

And who is going to help this woman and her surviving child with housing, social support, and psychological counseling?

This woman and her children were the very definition of the “least among us”, and her tragic story is emblematic of the ongoing breakdown of society in Romania.


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