Their lives shattered after Kensington fire

Posted: June 23, 2007

Nancy Malave and daughter Kimberly escaped with only their lives. The Kensington fire that consumed their H Street house took everything. Photos, keepsakes, clothing - even their car, because Nancy's 1995 Mitsubishi burned to a crisp at the curb.

"We couldn't grab nothing," said Kimberly, 18. "The only choice we had was to run."

Visiting the ruins of the red-and-green brick rowhouse for the first time since fleeing the flames Wednesday, the pair peered through charred window frames yesterday. They saw the inky void that for seven years had been their home and sobbed.

They turned tear-stained faces to the sky. They collapsed in grief. They shook with anger, saying the city should have done more to secure the abandoned warehouse in which the fire started before it arced across the street, destroying seven homes, including theirs.

The cause of the blaze remains under investigation. A spokeswoman for the Department of Licenses and Inspections said the building was sealed last year but a new round of inspections this year found persistent violations.

"We're going to sue!" shouted Kimberly, sounding more defiant and frustrated than focused on litigation as she stood before the home on a sidewalk crunching with broken glass. Her mother hung her head and cried.

The only other sounds on the street were the splash of a Fire Department hose training water onto lingering hot spots in the warehouse rubble and a wrecking crane's jaws biting into the remains.

Opting for temporary housing with a family member instead of at a public shelter, the Malaves, who lived with Kimberly's stepfather, Jose Rodriguez, and her best friend, Crishel Delgado, 16, all moved in with Kimberly's 21-year-old brother, Hector Rentas.

Rentas' one-bedroom apartment at I and Ontario Streets was already tight quarters for him, his wife and 2-year-old son, Xavier. Now the cramped apartment is outfitted with wall-to-wall mattresses and provides awkward shelter for seven people.

Adding to the discomfort is post-traumatic stress. Nancy Malave said she had been unable to sleep because whenever she closes her eyes, she conjures up the bright orange fireball she saw before running for her life.

Intense heat from the seven-alarm blaze shattered windows and melted awnings and plastic siding on nearby houses. Flames licked skyward more than 100 feet. Scores of residents within a two-block radius had to be temporarily evacuated. Some neighborhood people and firefighters were treated for minor injuries; officials said it was a miracle no one was injured severely or died.

Kensington neighbors have donated used clothing and other necessities for the victims. The Red Cross and Salvation Army have assisted, too.

The Simple Way, a Christian-affiliated community-services group, has raised more than $4,000 for fire relief through a drive on its Web site.

Like the people it wants to serve, the group was victimized too, losing one of its two neighborhood houses to the conflagration.

Simple Way founding member Shane Claiborne, 31, who moved to Philadelphia from Tennessee 10 years ago, lost everything in the fire except his white Apple laptop, which he kept tucked under his arm yesterday.

"The most valuable things in life you can't buy, sell or steal," he said. "People ask, 'How does it feel to lose everything?' I say, 'I wouldn't know. Everybody survived.' "

Survival is paramount, of course, but starting over after a total loss involves endless small details. The Malaves had to wait in line at a motor vehicle office yesterday to replace their driver's licenses. Kimberly, a rising Edison High School senior, with a job at a Dunkin' Donuts near Broad Street and Allegheny Avenue, still has to buy a new uniform, as well as closed-toe shoes to supplement her flip-flops, before returning to work Monday. Her mother used to pick Kimberly up at the end of her shift. Now she will have to depend on public transportation.

It's not the end of the world. Just the end of the world as she has known it.

"I lost everything. I have nothing. I can't even say I'm going home," she said. "I have no home."


Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541, or mmatza@phillynews.com

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