“Somebody came down off the fifth floor and said their apartment was starting to fill with smoke,” said Stephanie Stern, recalling the events of Sept. 28, 2013, when a tragic fire in North Bergen destroyed a building at 9201 Kennedy Blvd. and left over 100 people homeless.
“We ran out of the building the moment we heard people shouting about smoke,” said Stephanie’s 12-year-old daughter Miranda. “We were so panicked we just ran down the stairs. Then maybe five seconds later we started freaking out about the cats.”
“I got Miranda downstairs and we all saw smoke billowing out of the roof,” Stephanie continued. “I kept her downstairs and I went back up to get the cats. They were scared and being uncooperative.”
“The boy cat got very nervous and he ran under the bed,” Miranda explained. “And they’re inseparable so the girl cat ran after him. I didn’t see them again until 22 hours later.”
Ultimately it was a member of North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue who brought the two cats out of the building and reunited them with their tearful owners. And it was in gratitude for that action that Miranda Stern made it her bat mitzvah project to raise funds for North Bergen fire prevention.
“I wanted to donate back because these were the people who helped me get through.” –Miranda Stern
Long night of worry
“At first it wasn’t that bad, just puffs of yellow spoke floating out of the roof, but it got much worse from there,” Miranda said. “After a while I couldn’t watch anymore. I was too panicked about the cats and all our neighbors.”
Stephanie and Miranda lived on the fourth floor of the five-story building. The fire began upstairs in the late afternoon. Residents clustered in the Boulevard Diner across the street to watch fearfully. Power had been cut for safety.
“A huge crowd was gathering, fire trucks from many towns,” Stephanie said. “The section above our apartment had been burning out of control but they managed to stop that before it reached us. Then another section went in a tremendous fire, then another section. It was as if the fire ran from section to section. Finally by about 10:00 they had it under control.”
Among those battling the blaze was Fire Official Tom Irving, husband of a co-worker at the school where Stephanie teaches. “Tommy was at the scene all night,” said Stephanie. “I saw him. I was sobbing. Pets are like family. He said as soon as I get clearance I’ll go in and you’ll know one way or another.”
And the next morning, once the building was deemed safe to enter, he did as promised. “As soon as they got clear Tommy got traps and started at the fourth floor and got the cats out,” said Stephanie.
Her daughter picked up the story. “The first cats they got out were my cats because we were so worried about them. When they came out I was sitting in the Boulevard Diner across the street. I ran out and the boy cat was soaked and screaming, but what mattered was they were alive.”
Like the many other pets rescued from the building, the cats were taken to Banfield Hospital at PetSmart in Secaucus, where they were treated for free. Both cats were suffering from smoke inhalation but recovered quickly.
“There was a little dog across the hall from us,” said Stephanie. “She was so smart. She pulled her bed under the kitchen table so if anything fell from the ceiling she was protected.”
“This year I had my bat mitzvah, which is a coming of age ceremony,” said Miranda. “I was required to do a community service project and the first thing that came to mind was helping kids read. But that was before the fire happened.”
After suffering the loss of her home and belongings, Miranda decided to change her project and give something back to the firefighters who did so much for her.
“I wanted to donate back because these were the people who helped me get through,” she said. “They helped me get my cats. They helped me get my life back. Most of all they made sure my mom and I were safe.”
Setting up a gofundme account with her mom’s assistance, Miranda set a goal to raise $400, then began reaching out to friends and family for donations.
Not only did she reach her goal, she topped it, and and on June 25 Miranda Stern presented North Bergen Fire Prevention with a check for $450.
“North Bergen Fire Prevention is these firefighters who help teach people how to prevent fires,” she said. “Some of them were at the scene at the fire itself. And so I wanted to give back because they’ve given so much to me.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.