By Wilma A. Hurwitz, Photos By Kate Albright
for the Montclair Local

About 100 people gathered for an evening of food, drinks and dancing at Ruthie’s BBQ & Pizza on Wednesday night. For seven of the attendees however, things looked pretty bleak a month ago as they watched their home and belongings go up in smoke.

Although no one was hurt, residents of a multi-family house on Valley Road and Walnut Street escaped with literally the shirts on their backs as fire ravaged through the building on Nov. 15 during the first snowstorm of the season. The fire claimed the home and belongings of seven residents of the multifamily dwelling.

Melissa DiMarco, a concerned Montclair resident, has been organizing fundraising efforts since the morning after the residents found themselves without their homes. A Facebook page created by DiMarco dedicated to the Walnut fire victims seeks donations of clothing, furniture and more.

“People are dropping things [donations] off at my home,” DiMarco said. “My basement is packed with hundreds of items from our Montclair neighbors. It’s one of the most wonderful things I have witnessed. It started with clothes, and then other items people need. I also have gotten into finding places for people to stay.”

The support has been overwhelming, she said, and the seven residents are now counting their blessings.

On Wednesday evening Dec. 12, DiMarco and others — Montclair Home Corp., Reaching Out Montclair, Stanton Company Realtors, Argentino Family Law LLC, Ruthie’s BBQ & Pizza and the Montclair Fire Department — gathered for an evening at Ruthies to raise funds for their neighbors and as a thank you to Montclair firefighters. The evening included good food and drinks, and a lot of giving, laughing and dancing, and a little crying.

“Our goal for the victims was to celebrate life, love, neighbors and good will,” DiMarco said.

Mary Ellen Penn, her husband, Lawrence Sr. and their son Lawrence Jr., have been living in a hotel in Wayne since the fire.

“The offers of help, friendship and clothing are overwhelming us with their goodness. Also we are getting some financial assistance through my church, friends and family,” Mary Ellen said.

The couple hopes to return to Montclair. “I’ve spent half of my life here,” Mary Ellen said.

Lawrence Jr, said even though their future is uncertain, the outpouring from the community “has made me feel like I have a home, even now when it’s not clear where I’ll be living next.”

Jim Kiley lived in the building for two and half years, and works at Royal Hardware in Watchung Plaza.

Jim Kiley receives new fishing poles to replace the poles he lost in the fire. L-R: Fundraiser organizer Melissa DiMarco, tenant Jim Kiley, superintendent Fred Duff

“Many customers have been giving me clothes and gifts while I am basically doing my job,” Kiley said.

Fred Duff, who was the superintendent of the building for over 10 years and works in the seafood section of the Montclair Acme, said it’s the little things that he took for granted he lost in the fire. He went to read a bus schedule soon after the blaze and realized his glasses were still in the building.

“I [didn’t] have my reading glasses. I didn’t realize this for a few days. I finally bought a pair of readers. It’s the everyday things that you do and you do not have the appropriate stuff to do it. Here in Montclair we live in such an empathetic community contrasted with the politics of the day in our country,” he said.

Duff and Kiley are living together in a property secured by DiMarco.

Eric Soder had only lived in the building for three months. DiMarco helped him find an apartment in Woodland Park that he was moving into on Dec. 13. A Montclair neighbor donated a sectional and a bedroom set.  

“While I’m surprised that I found another place so quickly, I am very grateful that I live in a town that comes together for a fundraising initiative like tonight’s benefit,” Soder said.

US army veteran Bob Morton managed to get out of the flame-stricken building in pants, a sweatshirt and his military dog tags. He credits fire inspector John Thomas with helping him retrieve his tags. He is now with his sister-in-law in Little Falls.

“There has been an unbelievable outpouring of help including contact from some of my former Montclair High School classmates,” he said.

Montclair Township Fire Department first responders also attended the evening.

Ruthie’s employee Ariane Holland

Montclair Fire Department Captain Joe Bates credited DiMarco for engaging the community to help the residents.

“It’s always special when people have come together as a community to support each other. Here at this event we are honoring lots of Montclairites – business owners and residents. Also, as firefighters, we don’t expect anything in return for what we do,” said Montclair Fire Department Deputy Chief Rob Duncan.

Local businesses and restaurants donated gift baskets and gift cards for raffles. And to Soder and Duff, who lost their guitars in the fire, Ken De Poto with the new Cool Cat music shop and Maura Lockhart of the Human Needs Food Pantry donated two guitars. While Kiley will be fishing again this spring thanks to a new fishing pole.

Superintendent Fred Duff receives a new bass guitar donated by Ken of Cool Cat Music Company.