Redemptorist priest helps victims of slum fire in Thailand

Klong Toey slum. (Bangkok Post file photo)

A priest with a Catholic mission is raising funds to help rebuild homes destroyed in a fire inside one of the most disadvantaged communities of Bangkok.

Twenty-five slum houses were burned to the ground and six more were partially destroyed, rendering the poor residents homeless and distraught.

“We will do our best [to help],” said Father Joseph Maier, a Redemptorist priest who runs the Mercy Center in the sprawling shantytown of Klong Toey in Thailand’s capital. However, a citywide Covid-19 lockdown and the need for social distancing measures are hampering the efforts.

Father Joseph Maier blesses an elderly slum resident during Thai New Year festivities at his Mercy Center in Klong Toey, Bangkok. (Photo by Tibor Krausz)

He said the fire started on the night of Aug. 5 when an abusive alcoholic man living in one of the shacks became enraged after his wife failed to give him money to buy alcohol.

Luckily, all the residents managed to scramble to safety as their homes were engulfed in flames and there were no fatalities.

“They have scratches and bruises, but no one needed hospital treatment. Thank goodness — because of Covid-19 there are no available hospital beds,” said Father Maier, commonly known as Father Joe in Bangkok.

The American priest has been running preschools and kindergartens for children besides helping abused women, the elderly and other impoverished persons for the past half-century or so.

“Six of our kindergarten-aged kids who lived in two shacks with their grannies lost everything,” Father Maier said. “The good news is our slum kids are OK. [They were] scared — they had to run terrified from their burning shacks in the middle of the night.”

Many residents in the district live in tightly packed shacks of wood and cinder block that can easily become dangerous fire traps in the overcrowded community.

“The children grabbed their favorite teddy bears and dragged their old stumbling grannies to safety. Lots of tears and hugs, but our kindergarten kids are now fine,” the priest said.