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Hartford Family Thankful For Generosity After Fire

Glastonbury community and workplace rally for restaurant manager

Josh Kovner

November 25, 2010

It was a struggle, but Pedro Alicea was making it.

Working extra hours as a swing manager at McDonald's in Glastonbury, he was providing for his wife, Jacqueline Sierra, and their two sons and two daughters, ages 3 to 9. Jacqueline, 26, was going for her GED. Pedro would stay with the youngest, Gabriel, until Jacqueline came home from Hartford Adult Education, and then he'd go to work.

The three other kids, Alexandra, Stephanie and Jan Carlos, were enjoying school, Jacqueline said

They had the apartment at 182-184 Benton St. in south Hartford fixed up just about the way they wanted it. Pedro, who planned to visit his mother in Lajas, Puerto Rico, last week, had already gone out and bought a 9 1/2-foot Christmas tree and decked it out with lights.

Then their lives collapsed.

A multiple alarm fire in the three-story, wood-frame tenement on the morning of Nov. 13 routed all three families in the Benton Street building, a total of 14 people eight children and six adults. The fire obliterated the third floor and roof and heavily damaged the first and second floors.

Pedro, Jacqueline and the kids, who lived on the first floor, lost everything they had.

"Pictures memories,'' says Jacqueline, when asked what was most special to her.

After the Red Cross put them up in a motel for three days, the family moved in with Jacqueline's mother. The six of them are sharing a single room.

Then came the outpouring from the community.

Management at McDonald's put up some signs around the restaurant, briefly describing the family's plight.

That's all it took. A man came forward and said he will buy Christmas gifts for the four children, said restaurant manager Sue LaFleur. People have offered clothing, living room and bedroom furniture, and kitchen supplies.

" 'I have a hutch,' 'I have a dresser' people have been really generous,'' said LaFleur.

"It's amazing; I can't believe it sometimes,'' Pedro said of the support the family has received. He was sitting with Jacqueline at a table in the corner of the indoor playscape at McDonald's as Gabriel played. "You know, it's a little embarrassing. I would like to be giving and I like to buy my own stuff.''

He pauses and adds, "But, we lost everything.''

"I have my two daughters in therapy now,'' says Jacqueline. "They've been having nightmares since the fire.''

The family has been temporarily derailed by the fire, but they are in good company. From June 2009 to July 2010, the Red Cross helped 403 people displaced by a total of 40 fires in the city 146 children and 257 adults, said Red Cross spokesman Paul Shipman.

Jacqueline was warned about the fire by a third-floor tenant who ran down the stairs and pounded on her door. Jacqueline left the house in her nightgown, carrying two barefoot children in her arms, with her other two children running behind her. Pedro, at work when the fire broke out, rushed home. He could only stare at the damage.

Jacqueline and Pedro, married for 11 years, met while they both worked for the McDonald's in New Britain. Their relationship with the restaurant chain is proving helpful now.

On Tuesday evening, the Glastonbury restaurant hosted a fundraiser. A portion of the dinner sales for two hours will go to the family. Owner Scott Taylor announced he would personally match what was raised. The restaurant will continue collecting donated goods for the family through the end of December.

There had been a fire in the Benton Street building a month earlier, in the same general location on the third floor. Unprotected wiring in the wall had triggered a relatively small fire, according to city building-inspection records The property owner, Yan Zhao, of Rock Hill, S.C., received a notice of violation and an emergency order to fix the problem.

The owner's sister, Jessica Zhao, said over the phone from South Carolina this week that the electrical problem had been repaired before the Nov. 13 fire.

"We got a contractor the problem was fixed,'' she said. "With the big fire, we don't know what started it. It's really sad for everyone.''

Hartford fire Capt. Ronald Chance said the Benton Street blaze remains under investigation.

For now, the family is hoping to find another apartment soon. They re-made themselves once; they believe they can do it again. About a year and a half ago, the family moved to Lajas because they thought the island life might be better for the kids.

"No jobs,'' said Pedro.

They moved to Hartford, and had fashioned a decent life.

"It's better here,'' says Jacqueline. "There are more jobs, and the kids learn more in school here.''

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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