WESTFIELD, NJ — Two weeks after a fire forced Deborah Osment and her teenage son from their rental home on Downer Street, the two were getting settled in their new home nearby with furniture, clothing, cash to buy what they needed and their beloved 12-year-old cat Buddy, saved by firefighters from the flames and smoke the morning of July 9. Also saved — her son’s piano. Most of their other belongings were ashes, or too heavily damaged by smoke and water to be saved.
“Everything has been really like a miracle,” said Osment. “Everybody was helping me. Just everybody.”
The first miracle was that they made it out alive. Their friend, Doug Castro, happened to be sleeping on their couch downstairs when the fire began on the outside of the house at 4:30 a.m. No one heard a smoke alarm.
“He heard the fire — he heard the crackling and he felt the heat,” Osment said. “We were very fortunate to get out. We were sound asleep. If it wasn’t for Doug we wouldn’t have gotten out.”
After Osment got her son, a senior at Westfield High School, out safely, Buddy the cat remained inside the house for what Osment thought was over an hour. She was beside herself.
“I’ve had him since he was this big — the palm of my hand,” she said. “All I could think was what was happening to him.”
Then the battalion chief walked out carrying Buddy, safe and sound.
“He said, ‘This is not a cat. This is a tiger,’” Osment recalled.
Her son’s piano, which took years to pay off, was also surprisingly untouched.
“He was almost in tears because his piano was going to burn. But when we went in afterward, it looked like it was okay,” she said. It was, and friends from Chrone’s Pizza in Mountainside later helped her move it into their new home.
The police and firefighters who arrived that morning were phenomenal, Osment said. “Besides walking into the burning building, they were kind and helpful to us.”
Picking up the Pieces
Just hours after the fire, friends Susan Cook and Lois Walter set up a YouCaring.com site to raise money to help the Osments, who lacked renter’s insurance and the cash needed to start renting a new apartment. More than 275 people have contributed to raise over $22,000 so far.
“If it wasn’t money, it was clothes. People would bring me gift cards. People would say, ‘Do you need help moving?’” Osment said.
Among the many other donations Osment said she received were free bed frames, mattresses and sheets from Kara and Ron Shovlin at Shovlin Mattress Factory in Fanwood; free boarding, meals and wellness check for Buddy from Fanwood Animal Hospital; $500 worth of gift cards from ShopRite in Garwood; a five-night stay in a hotel and $485 for food, clothes and other necessities from the Red Cross; a gift basket filled with household items from friends at Chrone’s; free meals from Chrone’s; a check from Westfield High School organization Helping Hands; the support of the Presbyterian Church in Westfield; and donations of furniture, clothing, kitchen items and more from members of the community, many of whom she’s never met.
“It’s just amazing that I went from really zero to home again. Even these clothes I’m wearing, somebody gave these to me,” Osment said, sitting in a donated chair in the living room of new home. “That kind of generosity that people came out with was just amazing. I think we don’t give people enough credit. I certainly didn’t before this.”
They stayed with friend Tish Klofta while looking for a new home, Osment said, while Buddy was boarded at Fanwood Animal Hospital. Finding a rental in Westfield that takes pets might have been a challenge, but after Wycoff Realtors offered their services for free, another stranger helped Osment find that, too.
“She called and said, ‘I just moved out of a two-family right around the block from where you lived,’” Osment said. Once Osment was able to get in touch with the landlord, Gigi Kaufman, “She gave me the place right away and she gave me money off the first month’s rent. She was wonderful.”
Holly Grom, a friend who is working to create a new album to replace the photos they lost, listened as Osment told her story and said, “The ironic thing is Debbie’s the one always doing things for other people.” Via Facebook, Grom recently began asking members of the community to share photos of the Osments.
“If anyone has any pictures of their family from school, sports, church activities, etc., please post them to a Shutterfly account that I have set up for them,” she wrote. The log-in ID for the account is Debbieandmattosment@gmail.com and the password is 2015.
“I love my pictures and I actually have a lot of her son through the years, as our sons are in the same grade,” said Grom.”I thought, if you piece it all together, other people can kind of fill in all of the blanks.”
“Holy has been with me through this whole thing,” Osment said.
Paying it forward
She may have lost her home, but today, “I’m doing better than well. I am fantastic,” said Osment. “I have so many people to thank. I don’t even know where to begin.” She mentioned friends, the wonderful people at Chrone’s Pizza, her sister and her son, whose name she’d rather not publish. “He’s been great through all of this,” she said.
“I think the best part — I don’t want to call it a tragedy — the best part of this is giving hope and how people just come together to make it right. I think that’s what’s so miraculous about everything,” Osment said. “You’re never stranded. There are always good people around — great people. I would never be so arrogant to think that I could have done any of this by myself. It should give people a lot of hope. Everybody just chipping in put my life back together in two weeks. Two weeks ago I was homeless. I had nothing but the shirt on my back.
“Someone told me, ‘Pay it forward.’ I think that’s a great phrase. That’s certainly what I’m going to do. What I took for granted — a home, a bed, sheets, a pillow, a refrigerator, being able to get up in a clean, beautiful place. There are so many people who don’t have this kind of thing,” Osment said. “I think I’m settled now. If anyone wants to donate, you can give to an animal shelter, because of Buddy, or people who need help the way that I did.”