Community reaches out to help fire victims

Photos by Anthony J. Machcinski


Photos by Anthony J. Machcinski/ Post-fire damage at 187 Brighton Ave.


By Jeff Bahr

Concerned about the plight of the Franco family who were left homeless when their house at 187 Brighton Ave., Kearny, caught fire on Feb. 27, neighbor Donna Cupka is orchestrating collections for the family in their greatest time of need.

The fire, reported at 2:16 p.m., escalated into a four-alarm conflagration that became so intense at times it nearly spread to adjoining houses. After an investigation of the incident, Kearny Fire Chief Steven Dyl confirmed that his department has ruled the fire as accidental.

At first Cupka thought that the house to the south of the Franco residence was the one that had caught fire – not at all surprising since firefighters had routed a fire hose through its front door and out of a side window in an effort to attack the flames from a better angle.

She tried to contact one of the tenants at the house, a Kearny High School teacher, but eventually realized that the flames were coming from the Franco home.  Franco, his wife, son and grandchild were in the house when the fire started. All made it out safely. The family dog took refuge beneath a bed, said Cupka. Sadly, the animal perished in the blaze.

The fire did extensive damage to the wood-framed structure rendering it unlivable until major repairs are made – but Cupka wonders whether the building can be restored.

“The insurance company had come and they said that they can’t knock the house down; they’re going to have to rebuild what’s there,” explained Cupka. “I don’t think they’re going to be able to do that because the whole back of the house collapsed… There’s no back of the house – you can see right through,” she said.

As the house burned, members of the Franco family congregated directly across the street on Cupka’s front porch and watched with great sadness as the living nightmare progressed.

“They (the family) did go in there yesterday and were actually able to save some things, ” said Cupka. “They actually saved pictures, jewelry, things like this.”

“It was like a miracle when they went into the owner’s bedroom because they had a cross on the wall which had fallen down on the bed,” said Cupka. And the whole room was destroyed except for that bed, the quilt, and the pillows. Everything was still intact – they were just wet from the water… The dresser right next to the bed was still fine, and a cabinet and everything that they had like their passports and important papers and everything… Nothing burned ‘cause this cross was sitting there.”

The Red Cross has put the Franco family up in a hotel for the time being, explained Cupka.  “I think they’re only in there for like five days and then either his (Franco’s) insurance or his job are going to help put them up somewhere until he can find something,” she said. When asked about the family’s long-range plans, Cupka sounded less optimistic. “I don’t think there’s enough insurance to even cover building again… The whole back collapsed right down to the basement.”

The family has lost virtually everything that they own and are in great need, said Cupka. “We had a U-Haul truck out here last night for donations for clothes and things like that,” she explained. “I know Garfield School is doing Dress-Down-Days to get money for the kids, because that’s where the (Franco kids) go.” Lincoln School and Roosevelt schools are “going to do something also,” she said.

“My daughter is trying to get something done at Kearny High School – to help with the teacher also because he had so much water damage in there,” Cupka said. “Even the house on the other side has water damage. They can’t go back in there. I saw them taking out their beds last night, I don’t know where they were going.”

Cupka marveled at the way that people have opened up their hearts and wallets to help the Franco family get back on their feet. “When we rented the U-Haul truck, a fireman came up and gave some gift cards, another woman came and gave money to rent the U-haul again, ‘cause we’re gonna do it (accept donations) again on Friday. We’ve put it out on Facebook… There’s so many sites right now and everybody is putting something on Facebook about it.”

“I’m the person who is coordinating the neighborhood right now,” explained Cupka when asked how people can best contribute to the cause. “What we’re telling people is if there’s nobody over by the (Franco) house with the U-Haul truck, then they can drop everything on my front porch… And people who want to donate furniture for later on, we’re taking names and addresses. We’ll pick things up from them, ‘cause a lot of people said they had beds and furniture but they had no place to put them right now. They (the Francos) need things like appliances right now – they need everything,” Cupka said.

“So many people brought clothes last night it was unbelievable,” said Cupka about the generosity that’s being displayed by good Samaritans. “I was really surprised how people came out like that. And they were just seeing it on Facebook,” she added.
Cupka, who has been friends with the Franco family since she moved in across the street some 16 years ago, explained how another family also living on her side of the street pitched in to help. “They let them stay in the house so they could make phone calls,” said Cupka.

In a bizarre twist, a man “in his fifties” living at the same residence passed away later in the evening due to a heart attack, said Cupka in disbelief.  “We were so shocked, we didn’t even know it until the next morning when his girlfriend came over and told us.”
“From what I understand, I think it was Mr. Nino’s (restaurant) came up and said they were very sorry about what happened, and they brought them (the family) down to the restaurant to eat dinner” free-of-charge, explained Cupka.  A dry cleaner and others also donated their services.

“I’m surprised at the outpouring of help here,” Cupka continued. “With that fire a few years back on Windsor St. there wasn’t that much done for those people and it was three houses. With this, it’s amazing what they’re doing right now.”

Cupka described the closeness that she shares with the family that finds itself so sorely in need. “I can’t not help the Francos,” said Cupka with concern in her voice. For years we’ve been trading clothes and baby stuff. Every time someone had a baby, we’d switch clothes. We couldn’t not help them.”

“The Franco family sends their heartfelt thanks to the Kearny Fire and Police Departments and all those that have helped them,” said Cupka.

Contributors to the effort include: Mr. Nino’s Restaurant, PODS (storage containers), Ozzie’s Exxon (U-Haul truck), Comcast Community Bulletin Board (donation information), the Town of Kearny (permits), Kearny Schools (fundraisers), New Visions Development Service (house demolition services), N.J. 12 Television, and many other caring members of the community.

Those wishing to donate goods or money have been asked to contact Donna Cupka at (201) 702-9343, or make arrangements via Facebook at “Help the Franco Family.” Clothing sizes and necessary items are listed on the site. Cash donations are also being accepted at PNC bank in the “Franco Family” account.

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