CAMDEN, NJ— Around 3 a.m. on Thursday morning, Jeannette Hernandez was woken up by a knock on her window. It was her neighbor Victor Ammanzar, and he was holding his baby. His home at 947 Cedar St. was engulfed in flames.
“I hear banging at the window, and I have to save somebody’s baby,” Hernandez said on Saturday. “The neighbors passed their two-month-old baby through the window.”
Everybody was able to escape from that early Thursday morning fire with only minor injuries, however, the five families that lived in the row homes on the 900 block of Cedar Street lost everything they owned, just five days before Christmas.
“It’s been pretty rough, but [there’s been] a lot of support from everywhere,” Hernandez said. “There’s been a lot of support from family, everyone from everywhere, different places. I really really appreciate it. I just want to see my grandkids with a smile.”
On Saturday, Hernandez’s grandchildren were smiling.
Camden firefighters and Cooper EMS staff played the role of Santa Claus Saturday for the five families who had been displaced by the devastating fire that ripped through Cedar Street row homes in North Camden late last week.
Bags of toys, clothes and supplies, along with envelopes full of gift cards, were delivered by the first responders to help give the families a Christmas that was lost in the early Thursday blaze.
For the emergency responders, it was an opportunity to lend a helping hand at a time when no family is prepared to lose everything. For the families, it was a welcome reminder of the support of their community.
“I think this one struck home because it was so close to Christmas, and so many people were affected,” said Deputy Chief of the Camden Fire Department Ed Glassman. “A lot of people see firefighters and don’t realize there are people behind the helmets and the turnout gear … we just want for the residents what we have — to have a nice Christmas.”
It was the first time the members of the fire department organized an event to help families after a fire on such a large scale, said Glassman.
President of Camden Fire Officers Local #2578 Sam Munoz was one of the main organizers of the collection and Saturday’s delivery of gifts and goods.
“It’s a horrible situation whenever you experience a fire, but during this time of year, it's devastating,” Munoz said. “So we wanted to join forces and make Christmas happen for the children … These are many things folks aren’t prepared for.”
Shortly before 3 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 20, a two-alarm fire broke out at 947 Cedar St. The fire quickly spread to the homes at 949, 945, 943, 941 and 939 Cedar Street. Only minor injuries were sustained by both the residents and one Camden firefighter and Camden police officer. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
All six homes were rendered uninhabitable.
“The last couple of days have been very rough, very tough,” said Mariel Jimenez, whose family of four lived at 947 Cedar St. “But we’re really grateful and really surprised with all the help that I’ve been receiving. I don’t have words to express how grateful I am for the help … they haven’t abandoned us, the whole community has been helping us, supplying us with everything we need.”
Latoya Miller and her two sons lived at 943 Cedar St. On Saturday, after Miller made sure to hug each and every firefighter and EMS employee in her mother’s Vine Street living room, she said she was “just trying to regroup, and try to be positive and be optimistic that it will all work out.
“I feel like we have something, and I want to pray for the other families because they have nothing,” Miller said. “We’ve all been trying to talk each other to see what each other needs. It’s the funniest thing because we all don’t have much, but we want to share everything we have. That’s the most important thing we’re trying to do right now is share with each other.”
Cooper EMS Operations Manager Steven Hare said Saturday that it was the first time the Cooper EMS squad had participated in such an event after a fire, but not the first time it has rallied around a family in need.
Last year, Hare said, it held a similar collection around Christmas time for a family struggling to get settled after moving to Camden from Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria.
“It’s something we try to do whenever we find out a need in the community, we try to help,” Hare said. “Working with these guys [the Camden Fire Department], we try to do everything we can together. We save lives together and we take care of the community together.”
In addition to collecting clothes and gifts, members of the Cooper EMS squad also started a GoFundMe fundraiser for the family. As of Monday, the fundraiser had raised over $4,000, which will be distributed among the families in gift cards for much-needed items, wrote Bob Chester, Cooper EMS member, on the fundraising page.
Grateful for the help they have received, the families must now grapple with finding a new home.
“Now we’re trying to see how and where to put all this because I have everything but I don’t have a roof,” Jimenez said Saturday at her neighbor’s home across the street. “I don’t have a place established yet … it’s been rough because you never expect something like this to happen, but besides that, we’re grateful.”
Hernandez, who is out of work because of Kidney problems, shared the same concerns.
“Right now I’m a little off, but I just want a little home for me again,” she said. “But I appreciate everything everyone has done for us, not just for me, but for everyone that was in that fire … when people give me stuff, I take out for them too, because I know they got it real bad. They help me, and I help them.”