Metro

A year later, Cambridge fire still eats at family’s sense of safety

Paula Caruso (right) embraced former neighbor Luz Flores on York Street in Cambridge. Caruso and Flores once lived at St. Patrick’s Place, which was destroyed in the 2016 fire.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Paula Caruso (right) embraced her former neighbor Luz Flores on York Street in Cambridge, where they once lived at St. Patrick’s Place.

CAMBRIDGE — After the fire took everything, Paula Caruso’s 10-year-old grandson, Jahmari, was playing baseball when he suddenly ran off the pitcher’s mound in tears. Cranes were tearing down the blackened remains of his old home and he could see into his charred bedroom, where his moon-shaped nightlight still hung on the wall.

Another time, Caruso found her grandson stuffing his backpack with the plastic wrestlers his friends had given him after his own prized collection of action figures was destroyed. Jahmari explained that he had to keep his “wrestling men” with him, in case there was another fire.

Caruso, her grandson, and her two teenage daughters found themselves casting about for a sense of certainty after an inferno tore through their East Cambridge neighborhood one year ago Sunday, damaging 18 buildings and forcing 150 people from their homes. Like others whose homes were destroyed, she wonders whether she can regain the safety and comfort she felt before the fire.

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“You lost your sense of security, just being stable,” Caruso said, sitting on the couch in her family’s new apartment, overlooking the concrete foundation of her old home. “You’re here, but you could be gone tomorrow. We never had to think like that.”

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For 17 years, Caruso’s family lived in St. Patrick’s Place, a former Catholic church with arched doorways and stained-glass windows that was built in 1909 and converted into 16 units of affordable housing in the 1990s.

The residents there cared for one another, Caruso said. Jahmari loved to play with Marcia Jones, a neighbor from Barbados known as Cia, who considers the boy a grandson. When Caruso heard a knock on her door, she knew it was probably Luz Flores, another neighbor, asking for the key to the laundry room.

And when Ethel Ampey, a neighbor who was in her 80s, was sick, Caruso took care of her. At Ampey’s funeral in February, her daughters introduced Caruso as Ampey’s “other daughter who she never gave birth to.”

“Everything, no matter what she needed, I was there,” Caruso said. “The good, the bad, the ugly, whatever. We really looked out for each other. And maybe we didn’t realize it as much until we lost it.”

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When the fire started, just before 3 p.m. on Dec. 3, 2016, Caruso was resting on the couch with a vicious headache. She had just returned from taking Jahmari to church to make penance for his Communion, and he had gone next door to show Jones his new piggy bank.

Flores started banging on the door.

“Paula! Come here! I want to show you something,” she shouted.

Flores had looked through her window and seen a fire on the first floor of a partially constructed house next door. She and Caruso ran to Flores’s apartment to check it out. But when they opened the door, “bright orange balls” of fire rolled toward them, and they recoiled at the hiss and crack of burning wood, of flames fueled by frigid, 30-m.p.h. winds.

“The sound was crazy intense. I literally have nightmares of that,” Caruso said. “I really thought I was dreaming.”

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Caruso started screaming for Jones and Jahmari but the two didn’t immediately react.

“And then she was yelling, ‘Get out! Get out!’ ” Jones said. “And that’s when we realized there was a fire. We didn’t smell anything. There were no alarms going off, nothing like that.”

Jahmari and Jones ran outside, while Caruso grabbed a coat and shoes for her grandson and followed them onto York Street. Behind them, St. Patrick’s went up in a blaze. “I never looked back,” Caruso said. “I couldn’t even watch it happening. I just kept looking everywhere else.”

Investigators later reviewed security footage that showed a roofer who had been working on a house next door walking down the street with a cigarette in his mouth, just before the fire started. They suspect he tossed the cigarette into a recycling bin, which ignited piles of wood and paper debris. However, authorities were unable to conclusively determine that the roofer was to blame, and no charges were filed.

The fire rapidly moved through an East Cambridge neighborhood. The blaze displaced 150 people.
Michael Workman/Globe Staff/File
The fire rapidly moved through an East Cambridge neighborhood. The blaze displaced 150 people.

St. Patrick’s residents initially stayed at the Holiday Inn in Somerville, where Caruso said she was moved by the kindness of first responders as well as the neighbors and strangers who brought clothes, gift cards, and hugs.

“Cambridge just pulled through as a community,” Caruso said. “Everything meant something to me at the time, to see the generosity of people in such a cruel world today.”

Over the next several weeks, Just-A-Start, the nonprofit that owned St. Patrick’s, managed to find an affordable home in Cambridge for every St. Patrick’s resident who needed one.

Caruso, her grandson, and her two teenage daughters, ages 18 and 19, moved into their apartment, on the first floor of a three-decker next to St. Patrick’s, five days before Christmas. Jones moved into the apartment across the hallway. Caruso’s niece brought over a Christmas tree.

“And that was the only thing I had in my living room,” Caruso said. “We didn’t have nothing. Not a place to sit.”

The city of Cambridge raised $1.2 million to help fire victims, and gave the money to 75 families, who received $16,000 on average. Caruso bought furniture, dishes, and clothes, but misses her late father’s baseball-card collection, the Bible her parents received as a wedding gift, and her daughters’ high-school diplomas.

“Those are the kinds of things that all the money in the world will never buy back,” she said.

She also struggles with fear and anxiety. Once, when Jahmari accidentally burned toast, she threw out the toaster oven in a panic. She says still cries when she sees pictures of the fire and can’t bring herself to hang curtains or pictures in her new apartment.

“I need to be permanent somewhere and then be able make it my home,” Caruso said. “This is not where I want to live. For me, it doesn’t feel like home.”

Jahmari also misses his home, she said, recalling how he broke down on the pitcher’s mound and stashed his wrestling figures in his backpack.

“After the fire, he’s just been emotionally different,” Caruso said. “Kids, when they’re traumatized, don’t show it the same way. He doesn’t talk about his feelings, so it’s coming out in different ways.”

Just-A-Start is building a new, 16-unit development to replace St. Patrick’s, and has given first preference to former residents. Some have indicated they want to move back. Others plan to remain in their new homes.

Jones said she cannot wait to move in, once the modern, three-story building with central air conditioning is complete, in December 2018.

“I think it’s going to be great, like a family reunion,” she said.

Caruso also plans to move her family back but has mixed emotions about returning to a place where she lost so much. When she lived in St. Patrick’s, she always felt safe, “like nothing was ever going to happen,” she said. She’s not so sure her new home will feel the same way.

“It may be 50 York St., but it’s not going to feel like 50 York St.,” she said. “I just don’t know. Will it even feel like I’m back home?”

Caruso stood at the site of her former home in Cambridge. She has mixed emotions about moving back when the building is replaced.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Caruso stood at the site of her former home in Cambridge. She has mixed emotions about moving back when the building is replaced.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.