Hope amid the ashes at St. Patrick’s Place

Firefighters battled the 10-alarm fire in front of St. Patrick’s Place.
Firefighters battled the 10-alarm fire in front of St. Patrick’s Place.(John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

Saturday unspooled like any other day, the rhythms of life falling uneventfully into place. Breakfast. Dishes. Household chores. Life being lived, as ever, one foot falling after the other.

After all she’d been through, after her against-all-odds success story — a story she told to a pin-drop silent panel of senior officials in Washington a couple of years ago — it was the kind of boring normalcy she’d come to appreciate. Come to love.

“I’m in recovery, and this is the first place where I put down roots and I felt like I was home,’’ Sherri Harrison said. “We didn’t have a lot of stuff. But what we had was our stuff.’’


And so Harrison was folding laundry in her two-bedroom apartment at St. Patrick’s Place, a former church on Berkshire Street in Cambridge, last Saturday afternoon as her 6-year-old daughter, Carolyn, played quietly nearby.

As the laundry stacked up on the couch in front of three first-floor windows, an orange flame from the building out back caught her eye and triggered her adrenaline.

“I looked and said, ‘That’s concerning,’ “ she recalled. “Within two minutes, it was engulfed. Then our windows cracked. Smoke was coming in. Alarms are going off. Everybody’s screaming. Lights are flickering. I can hear the roar of it. Our neighbor yelled, ‘Let’s go!’ He grabbed Carolyn. I got out a couple seconds later. There was no time to grab anything — ID. Wallet. Nothing.’’

Sherri and Carolyn are among the 122 people from 57 families displaced by a 10-alarm fire that blackened dozens of housing units in Cambridge’s Wellington-Harrington neighborhood.

Harrison described her home as a place where neighbors watched out for one another. If a package was delivered in the hallway, it was collected until its owner arrived home. If you didn’t know a neighbor’s name, you knew the face. And the smile, especially the ones flashed at Carolyn, who is on the autism spectrum and has Williams syndrome, a developmental disorder.


“We had awesome neighbors,’’ Harrison, 33, said.

And, if anyone deserved to land in a place of caring neighbors, it is Sherri Harrison.

I first told her story two years ago, after that riveting testimony in Washington before US senators, a top White House official, and the nation’s preeminent experts on the scourge of heroin that was then — and still is — sweeping the nation.

“I didn’t have much of a life to lose,’’ she told the panel. “I was an addict.’’

Note the past tense. That is what sets her apart.

Born in Springfield, she was raised amid a family of addicts or alcoholics. She was on her own by age 16. In her senior year at Somerville High School, she dropped out. She drifted through bartending and waitressing jobs. Mostly, she used drugs. Four weeks into her pregnancy in 2009 she showed up at a fifth-floor clinic at Boston Medical Center. And then she waged the most difficult, most heroic fight of her life.

“I’ve been sober for seven years now,’’ Harrison, now enrolled at Bunker Hill Community College, told me this week. She built a network. She learned how to cope. She knows something few of us know: how monumentally difficult it is to escape heroin’s grip.

“You can have all the best intentions in the world, but it’s like trying to quit eating,’’ she explained. “Physically, mentally it just pulls you back.’’


There are hundreds of stories to tell about the fire that roared through her neighborhood last week. Hers stands out because of the struggles it took to get there.

She is staggered and grateful by her community’s outpouring of generosity. She cried for two days straight. She couldn’t eat. She couldn’t sleep. She wants normalcy for Carolyn, who desperately needs normalcy.

As we sat in a conference room at Boston Medical Center this week, Harrison was alternatively smiling and hopeful and dabbing tearful eyes with Kleenex, cascading emotions rolling in like the ceaseless tide.

“I’ve been through difficult times before,’’ she said. “For me, I just have to focus on my next steps. But it can be overwhelming.’’

Overwhelming. It’s a feeling that she knew too well. But since then, she freed herself from the cruel gravitational pull of a powerful drug that is capturing and killing too many.

“I have faith that I have the ability to overcome whatever is thrown at us,’’ she said.

And now she leans on that faith, looking forward to the holidays with her daughter — holidays that she is determined to make bright. Because she knows that amid the ashes and the despair, there is hope.

And, everywhere she looks, there are good people reaching out their hands in search of hers.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @FarragherTom.