One Year Ago: Fire on Walnut Street
On the anniversary of a fire that left some 40 people homeless, residents and volunteers recall that day and the community's response.
Odalis Sanchez, then 18, was in her bedroom when she heard the fire alarm sound, a little after 1 p.m. Two months pregnant, she was with her toddler son in the two-family house they shared with nearly 40 others on Walnut Street.
"I didn't think much of it, because it was always going off," she said in a recent interview. But when she opened the door to the bedroom where the alarm was sounding, she found it filled with smoke so thick she couldn't see inside. She grabbed her son, Cristian, and joined several women and children on the stairs: "everybody was going down." Moments later, they stood outside on a freezing December day, barefoot and without coats, watching as black smoke and flames poured from the house's upper windows.
Sanchez phoned her husband, Aldeguno Roman, 26, a cook at the Short Hills Mall restaurant Papa Razzi.
"She called me crying," he recalled. "I came right away."
The couple had lost everything, from furniture and appliances to clothes and diapers for their son.
But a year later, Sanchez and other residents of 26 Walnut St. said they are doing well, thanks to a coordinated relief effort that brought help from various parts of the community.
"We're okay, thank God," said Donnaciana Roman, 34, Sanchez's sister-in-law, who lived in the house with her husband and three children and also escaped the fire. "Actually, we're better."
The blaze at 26 Walnut St. was one of 85 fires in Summit in 2008, according to Fire Chief Joseph Houck. Several others were just as significant in terms of structural damage and property loss, he said in an interview. No one was injured or killed in the Dec. 8 incident.
But the Walnut Street fire stood out, grabbing headlines and community attention in a way the year's other fires did not. Close to 40 people - most related in one way or another, all originally from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, at least 15 of whom were children - had been living in the house's two apartments; locks were fixed outside some bedrooms.
However, there is a disparity between the number of people the city says was living there –somewhere between 24 and 28– and the number of people volunteers say they helped that chilly December afternoon. This discrepency is most likely due to the fact that some of the residents were only living on Walnut Street part time and that some may have not actually lived there at all.
Community shock at the overcrowding was mixed with the specter of a narrowly-averted tragedy. Mayor Jordan Glatt was one of many who noted that had the fire started at night with the house full of sleeping occupants, the outcome might have been horribly different.
The fire put a spotlight on little-seen aspect of life in Summit, one that has reverberated in subsequent discussions of affordable housing and immigration. But in part because of the large number of displaced, the Walnut Street fire also showcased some of Summit's strengths, both in the initial actions of first responders and in the coordinated and generous relief effort that followed.
With the help of the Red Cross and several local religious congregations, less than three weeks after the fire all the residents had found new housing in Summit.
"I think the humane side of people came out," said Dorothy Burger, an elder at Central Presbyterian Church who coordinated the church's aid. "Here you have families out in the cold without anything, and then top that off with the holiday season. People were certainly compassionate and giving."
Efforts to help Sanchez and the other residents of 26 Walnut St. began immediately. As firefighters confirmed that no one remained inside and doused the house with water, police officers cordoned off the scene and directed traffic and emergency vehicles. Sanchez and her son were taken to Zadie's Nurturing Den, a childcare center at the end of Walnut Street, to escape the cold. Within hours, the Red Cross's Colonial Crossroads chapter had transported residents to Calvary Church for the night. Volunteers from the Junior League brought piles of clothing.
Robert Morris, executive director of the Interweave community center, sent out e-mails to local congregations asking for help, Burger said in a recent interview. Central Presbyterian Church on Maple Street has a long involvement with Homefirst, a Plainfield-based organization that houses homeless persons with churches and temples for a week or two at a time, so the church had beds and furniture ready to take in about 15 of the displaced. Former Sunday school rooms off the auditorium had been converted into private living rooms to enable residents of the temporary shelter to have some privacy, she said.
"We did have a foundation and the means for taking in homeless folks," Burger said. "What was hard was it was cold, the holidays were coming, and we had 41 displaced people. Some went to live with family and we divided the rest."
Few of the house's residents spoke English, and like most of the volunteers, Burger spoke no Spanish. Still, she got the impression that "the people were in such shock," she said.
Help continued to pour in. "The power of the Internet is phenomenal," Burger said, ticking off examples of community assistance. The YMCA allowed the fire victims to shower in its locker rooms and later held a Christmas party, she said. Bridges Outreach, which delivers food and clothing to homeless people in New York and Newark, supplied boots for the men and hats and gloves for everyone and helped with meals. Members of Central Presbyterian purchased some 25 large duffel bags for residents to keep their new belongings in; the Junior League donated high chairs and strollers. Temple Sinai held a holiday dinner with presents, donated clothes, and much-appreciated gift cards for Shop Rite, CVS, and Target, Burger said.
Sanchez summarized the help this way: "They gave us everything."
Volunteers helped the displaced residents with individual needs as well, driving children to school and some adults to work. A number of the men worked at the Short Hills Mall, at Papa Razzi like Roman, or at Joe's American Grill; "these fathers worked very hard to get on their feet," Burger said. Those who did not go to school or work spent the day at a house owned by Christ Church and returned to Temple Sinai or Central Presbyterian in the evenings.
Finding new housing was the next priority. Burger helped people staying at Central Presbyterian check for-rent listings, and then they'd pile into her car to see and apply for apartments. Central Presbyterian Church paid for the security and first-month's rent for three families, and the Red Cross provided similar deposits for others, she said. Both groups also donated furniture.
Several residents, including Sanchez and her husband, found new housing in other buildings on Walnut Street, some only doors from where they once lived. Donnaciana Roman now lives on Hughes Place; others found apartments on Ashwood and Summit Avenues, Burger said. By Dec. 26, everyone who had lived at 26 Walnut St. had a new home.
One place the house's displaced residents did not get help was from their former landlord, said Aldeguno Roman. Tam Dang, the owner of 26 Walnut St. and an employee with the Summit Housing Authority, offered no compensation, Roman said. Dang pleaded guilty in February to several city charges including illegal occupancy, unsafe conditions, and basement sleeping, for which he was fined $300 plus court costs; in April he was fined more than $9,000 for fire code violations. Among them were the overuse of extension cords and locks on doors used for sleeping areas, the same violations Dang was cited for after a minor fire took place at 26 Walnut St. in January 2008, Fire Chief Houck said.
To avoid a conflict of interest given Dang's employment, Houck called in Union County fire officials to investigate the fire. They deemed its cause electrical and accidental, having started in an upstairs bedroom.
The day of the fire featured intense coordination among first responders, Houck said. The first firefighters to arrive at the scene found the house "significantly involved" and called for help with a second alarm; 10 minutes later, a new request for aid went out after smoke from 26 Walnut St. was sucked into the ventilation system at nearby Overlook Hospital and alarms went off there, Houck said. Firefighters from seven nearby communities arrived under mutual aid agreements, he said. Summit police officers evacuated surrounding buildings and First Aid Squad members set up a rehabilitation station for firefighters working the blaze, he added.
In the year since the fire, the department renewed its focus on fire prevention, code enforcement, and public education, especially for non-English speakers, some of whom "may be new to the community and in some challenging living arrangements," Houck said.
"They're not getting the message we give to third graders," he said, referring to the city-wide fire safety instruction given to school children.
Soon after the fire, Jorge Mattarredona of the city's Safe Homes program, a fire prevention effort through the Department of Community Services, gave a fire safety presentation in Spanish to parents at the middle school. In April, the department held a session for Spanish-speaking parishioners at St. Teresa's Church on Morris Avenue to make people aware that the fire department will provide and install smoke detectors in anyone's home, no questions asked. Houck said the department hopes to implement a program in which civilians can install the alarms, to avoid fears undocumented immigrants may have about dealing with a person in uniform. Although buildings are mandated to have smoke detectors, residents often remove batteries when the alarm goes off during due to smoke from cooking, Houck said, so the department installs alarms equipped with tamper-proof, 10-year lithium batteries.
On Monday, Odalis Sanchez and Donnaciana Roman said the fire has been on their minds as its anniversary approached.
"A year ago we were living at Temple Sinai," Roman said.
With all her possessions replaced, Sanchez said the only thing she misses is the small refrigerator she kept in her bedroom to store water in - not a big deal. Sitting in the spare shared kitchen of her new apartment, she said the fire was bad, but living in her new house is an improvement - fewer people, not so many kids.
"It's been a year since the house burned. If it hadn't burned we'd still be living there," she said.
Life is good now, agreed Donnaciana Roman; she and other residents had hoped to improve their housing situation. Her daughter had to switch elementary schools when the move put the family in another district, but she's doing well, Roman said. Still, the fire remains a difficult memory.
"It was really sad," she said. "We wanted things to change, but not the way it happened."
But accidents happen, Roman said. Next time, she said, she hopes she will be the one to help someone in need.
Those interested in making additional donations for those displaced in the fire, or to other homeless outreach programs, may contact Dorothy Burger via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Gift cards to Shop Rite, Target, and Wal-Mart are especially welcome.