The slow recovery from fire

Donations have helped. But personal and financial stress have been high for survivors of a Kensington arson.

Posted: August 06, 2007

Six weeks have passed since the devastating arson that gutted a warehouse, consumed seven houses, and rocked a Kensington neighborhood.

For the families who lost everything when flames engulfed the 3200 block of H Street on June 20, the sharp pain of sudden loss has given way to a dull ache.

"It's been hard. We stress all day and cry at night," said 18-year-old Kimberly Malave, who escaped the blaze with just the clothes on her back.

For the scores of benefactors who responded - including a recent University of Pennsylvania graduate who contributed $20,000 to the two relief funds established by the community organizers of a group called the Simple Way - the tragedy brought out the best in human nature.

"It was money that I had set aside to be donated as 'faith' money," said John Backes, a Dallas-raised 2006 Penn grad with a degree in history who works at a Chicago real-estate firm.

During a visit to the Simple Way in 2006, Backes learned about the grassroots work of the Christian group and walked away impressed.

When he heard about the fire, he felt he had to respond. Taking a lesson from his Bible - "Sell what you have; give to the poor; you will have treasure in heaven" - he sent two $10,000 checks, one to support the Simple Way and the other for the fire-affected families.

Philanthropy has helped. Still, the families struggle with the trauma.

"It was a fire. . . . We could have died," said Malave, whose mother, stepfather, and best friend, Crishel Delgado, 16, also escaped from the rowhouse that the family rented for $350 a month.

Wrecking crews have torn down the charred remains of her house. The blackened hole where it stood has been filled with soil and rolled flat.

While Malave hardened herself for the misery that followed the fire, she was not prepared for the hollow feeling of seeing her street denuded. "It looked so empty . . . like I never lived there," she said, eyes welling.

Nor was she prepared for the strain on family ties.

After the fire, she stayed briefly with her brother, his girlfriend and their toddler son in a small apartment near I and Ontario Streets, but group living was untenable in such tight quarters, she said.

She and Delgado spent four nights in a Roosevelt Boulevard motel, courtesy of a friend. He didn't stay there; it was a gesture of friendship, Malave said. But it made the man's "baby mom" jealous, she said.

After Malave's mother and stepfather found a one-bedroom apartment for themselves, Malave and Delgado moved in with Malave's godmother in the Juniata section.

"The fire ruined everything. The whole family split up. It's just me and my best friend now," she said of Delgado. "That's my heart right there."

Both girls work at a Dunkin' Donuts on North Broad Street, earning $7.15 an hour and dreaming of getting their own apartment. They attend Edison High School and will enroll in the school's "twilight program" - attending from 3 to 6 p.m. - so they can keep their jobs.

They have a few new clothes. Some were purchased. Some were donated. Some they share. Each has just one pair of shoes.

"As long as I'm alive and I got my job," said Malave, "I can get what I need, slowly by slowly."

For Elba Iris Santiago, whose three-bedroom H Street house fell to the flames, a lawyer is handling her homeowner's insurance claim. Born in Puerto Rico, Santiago, 43, bought the house 12 years ago. She lived there with her husband and four children. Now she rents a three-bedroom house on Aramingo Avenue, near Port Richmond, and her two oldest children live with relatives elsewhere in the city.

The fire took everything except some photographs encased in plastic and important papers in a bedroom safe.

Santiago, a block captain, credited "neighborhood cooperation" with getting her back on her feet - cooperation between longtime residents and relative newcomers like the people of the Simple Way, which had two houses in the neighborhood before the fire swallowed one.

While the Red Cross and Salvation Army provided emergency assistance, the Simple Way led the follow-up, creating the two fire-relief funds advertised on its Web site (, and coordinating drives for clothing and furniture for the fire victims.

Tim Fryett, 23, a Penn grad and member of the group, said more than $40,000 had been raised, including the two big contributions from his friend and fellow alum, Backes.

Other donors have included a college student who attended summer school here and decided to donate - rather than sell - his used car, and people who have given furniture to Circle Thrift, the charity of the Circle of Hope Church on Frankford Avenue. Using vouchers from the Simple Way, fire victims can get what they need at the thrift shop.

Some people just need to replace items ruined when water used to fight the fire flooded basements, and they can be helped relatively quickly. For victims who lost everything, said Fryett, "we're realizing it may take five years" to make them whole.

The Simple Way has been holding biweekly meetings at its undamaged house a block from the fire to track the needs of displaced residents, pairing each family with a Simple Way advocate. The group also wants to influence what will rise from the ashes.

We "hope the rebuilding of our neighborhood includes . . . new housing," the group writes in an online petition.

But, the Simple Way says, because the neighborhood lacks green space, the best option is a playground "that restores dignity and quality of life to this Kensington community."

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Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215 854 2541, or

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