Kevin Riordan: South Jersey reaches out to fire victims

Haddon Heights residents (from left) Cynthia Vena, Sue Watkins, and Chris Hofmann stand near the remains of the apartment house.
Haddon Heights residents (from left) Cynthia Vena, Sue Watkins, and Chris Hofmann stand near the remains of the apartment house. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 10, 2013

Fenced-off and forlorn, the ruins of 101 White Horse Pike in Haddon Heights attest to fire's frightening force.

But ever since the Feb. 23 apartment house inferno, which seriously burned tenant Raquel Nunn and rendered all six residents homeless, a different sort of power has been at work.

Hundreds of people, from school kids to seniors, have collectively donated more than $15,000 to help the victims. They have ponied up the proceeds of garage sales and bowling nights and placed bills in collection plates; parishioners of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church alone contributed $5,000.

"There were gift cards, Mass cards, and letters from people all over the Delaware Valley," says Cynthia Vena, president of Good Neighbors of Haddon Heights. The comfortable Camden County borough of 7,500 made the nonprofit its official conduit for donations.

"We haven't responded to a tragedy of this size," founding member Sue Watson says. "We were amazed at the response, and gratified. We had been hoping to provide the victims with perhaps $500 each."

Instead, all six will get checks for $2,397.42, while Nunn, recovering at her sister's Burlington County home in outpatient treatment, will receive $900 more from donations in her name - including the $10 a North Philadelphia reader mailed me.

"It's an absolute blessing," says Suzanne Kaczinski, 26, who lost everything in her first-floor apartment - including a necklace with a cross from her grandmother - and had to move back in with her parents in Medford Lakes.

"I wish I could thank every single one of these people," adds Kaczinski, an assistant bank manager in Cherry Hill, who had moved into one of the five apartments in the three-story frame house less than a year ago.

"I loved living there," she says. "It was beautiful. We were all young professionals, and we were a support system for each other."

Kaczinski says she occasionally drives by 101 but finds it painful. No wonder: The field of debris, including rusting appliance carcasses, appears undisturbed since the fire.

"We believe it was accidental and caused by a gas leak," says Jason Laughlin, spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office. "But it may never be possible to determine the source of that leak."

Borough officials say they hope 101 will be rebuilt. The owner, Michael Grace of Moorestown, could not be reached for comment.

Mayor Ed Forte, a veteran volunteer fireman who was on scene Feb. 23, commends Good Neighbors.

"They've done a fantastic job," he says. "All I can say is, people are generous. They know how to take care of their own."

Indeed. Neighbors looked for several days before managing to find Leo, Nunn's beloved cat, who's keeping her company again. Good Neighbors continues to accept donations for all six victims, and two benefits for Nunn, who suffered burns over 60 percent of her body, were held in Philadelphia during March and April.

Her coworkers at Kazmierski Orthodontics in Marlton are hosting a fund-raiser May 17 at Braddock's Tavern in Medford. Ott's, on Route 73 in Berlin Township, where she also worked, has established a Recovery for Raquel fund.

And Mindy's Place, a White Horse Pike salon, is collecting clothing and gift cards.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.philly.com/blinq.

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