For the last month, residents in Jersey City and Hoboken have regularly stopped to reflect on the destruction wrought by two recent fires in the neighboring cities.
While fires happen all too often in densely-packed urban communities, these incidents are notable for the fact that they took place within just a few hours of one another.
In the month since the fires, the affected residents and business owners have had to rebuild their lives, and in some cases their livelihoods, literally from scratch.
But, as is always the case when such tragedies happen, there is a sense of community and renewal that follows. Two couples, one in Jersey City, the other in Hoboken, recently reflected on the events of February 19, and the healing that has taken place in the four weeks since.
Moving on, literally – and figuratively
Jersey City resident Asha Herbert and her fiancé Brian Palms had been living in their two-unit apartment building at 249 Monticello Ave. for a month and a week when they lost everything in the Feb. 19 fire that displaced 19 people in Jersey City’s Bergen-Lafayette neighborhood.
The move, said Herbert, was meant to be a fresh start in a new home for the young couple.
“The place where we were living before was bad, and moving to Monticello was supposed be our chance to start from scratch in a more positive space,” said Herbert. “Then we move there and this happens weeks after we move in.”
About three weeks ago, Herbert and Palms, who are both students and work full-time, moved into a new apartment in the Jersey City Heights community.
“The main concern was getting back on our feet, and getting a place to stay,” said Herbert, adding that the couple has managed to replace their bed and couch, but little else. For Herbert and Palms, who salvaged only the clothes on their backs and a couple of jackets at the time of the fire, replacing their work wardrobe is now a priority. “When you’re starting from scratch all over again, it’s so hard to go down that list of what you need, because you forget how much you had.”
While Herbert and Palms have moved a distance from their former home, another couple, Bethany Rose and her husband Kevin, now live just blocks from what had been their home at 300 Washington St. in Hoboken.
“We’re actually still living in Hoboken. We’re right on River Street,” said Bethany Rose. “We moved to Hoboken because we liked the community here. We loved the vibrancy of the neighborhoods and the people we met. We had already lost so much in the fire that I didn’t want to lose that, too. And I know if we left and went to another city, we’d want to come back.”
“The things that sustain your life can be taken away from you in one breath.” – Asha Herbert
Perhaps the greatest tragedy for both couples was the death of their family pets, a wrenching loss that is still a sensitive subject for both couples.
“We had just gotten 15 goldfish and two big turtles,” said Herbert. “Those were our first pets [together as a couple]. So it was completely traumatizing, to say the least, because life is life to us, whether it’s human life or pet life.”
The Roses were out of town, two hours outside of Hoboken, enjoying dinner with friends, when their cat sitter called to alert them of the tragedy unfolding back home.
“Usually, we just communicate by text,” said Rose. “It’s very rare that she’ll call me. I didn’t hear my phone and by the time I looked at it, I think I had eight voicemail messages from her. So, I knew something was wrong.”
Through the uncontrollable crying of her cat-sitter, Rose was able to piece together the outline of the tragedy unfolding back home: fire, their home destroyed, and their cats Tessa and Jack still in the apartment.
“We left the dinner table immediately and made the two hour trip back to Hoboken,” said Rose.
When they returned, the fire was under control, but their home was gone. They only thing the couple cared about what whether their cats – who had both been rescued and adopted by the couple – were still alive.
“They had a perimeter set up. But I just stayed there telling them that there were two cats on the second floor,” said Rose. “By doing that, I think the firefighters kind of remembered me and were mindful of the fact that there were animals in the building.”
Exhausted, the Roses left to find a place to stay at around 4 a.m.
The next day, Bethany Rose received another call from her cat sitter.
“She had gone back to the building and had convinced one of the firefighters to go in and look for them,” she recalled. “When she called, she said, ‘I have them. I have them.’
Tessa and Jack were found where they died of smoke inhalation: huddled together under the bed.
“Because they meant so much to us and were such a big part of our lives, I knew immediately that I wanted to do something to memorialize them,” said Rose. “I knew about the [Jersey City-based] liberty Humane Society through volunteer work I’ve done. I thought it would be nice to set up way to honor them by giving to Liberty.”
Although nine firefighters were treated for non-life threatening injuries battling the Feb. 19 blazes, there was no loss of human life.
Both couples have returned to their former homes. Firefighters in Jersey City and Hoboken allowed victims access to their units for about 15 minutes days after the fires so they could salvage a few items, if possible.
Although Palms and Herbert packed a few clothes, Herbert said most of these items were later deemed unusable and were tossed out. The only items they kept were a couple of jackets.
Herbert and Palms also returned to the area on March 10 for a fundraiser for fire victims.
“The day they finally brought down our building I thought I just wanted to avoid Washington Street altogether,” said Rose. “But then, I don’t know, I decided I just wanted to face it. So, I put on my shoes and got a jacket and I went over there and watched them bring it down.
As is always the case after such incidents, Rose and Herbert admit that the fires have forced them to refocus on what is most important in life.
Despite the loss of Tessa and Jack, Rose admits her loss would have been greater had her husband perished in the fire, too. She said she feels “blessed” that they both escaped with their lives.
Herbert expressed a similar sentiment.
“We take life and our daily routines for granted. We get so caught up in our everyday routines that we sometimes block ourselves off from what’s really going on around us,” said Herbert. “We lose sight of the fact that life is very unpredictable. The things that sustain your life can be taken away from you in one breath…I wasn’t at home when the fire began, but Brian was. We lost a lot of things in the fire. But seeing him outside our burning apartment made me realize I could have lost him.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.