Neighbors reach out to fire victims

Donations include clothing, shelter

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Globe Correspondent / March 10, 2011

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One day after Jessica Xion lost her home and business in a March 1 fire that devoured a local landmark, she was back at work doing manicures in a friend’s shop and refusing to let anyone pay her hotel bill. Her reason: “I don’t know how I would pay it back.’’

But town residents and devoted customers insisted she let them ease her burden somehow. As she worked, she also wept as a steady stream of women arrived with bagfuls of basics, including clothing, shoes, cereal, water, pajamas, and cash.

“All my life, I’ve always been the one who helped people,’’ said a tearful Xion, who sends money each month to her mother in China. “I never thought other people would help me.’’

These gestures of generosity on display last week at Artistic Nails in Swampscott illustrated a wider, ongoing effort to help 13 residents and six merchants displaced by the three-alarm blaze at 128-140 Humphrey St. Victims didn’t have much cushion to fall back on, and the community has rallied to their support.

Today at Town Hall, displaced business owners will meet with public officials and members of the Lynn Area Chamber of Commerce in a bid to get questions answered about everything from relocating to applying for funds from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

Assistance efforts began even before a demolition crew had leveled the building. The Red Cross of Eastern Mass. provided temporary lodging for five of the six families and individuals made homeless by the fire, according to spokeswoman Nancy Rowe. The sixth family could not be located immediately, Rowe said.

Last Thursday, the town of Swampscott used an automated system to phone town residents and solicit seasonal clothing donations. By day’s end, a 15-foot-by-20-foot space at Town Hall was so packed with clothes that a second recorded call went out. This one thanked residents for meeting the need and asked them to limit further donations to gift cards, bedding, and towels. Gift card donations, which were accepted through Tuesday, exceeded $3,000, according to Town Administrator Andrew Maylor.

Meanwhile, people with ties to affected individuals mounted their own campaigns. Swampscott Middle School put out an e-mail asking for gift cards and housing options for the family of a student whose home had been destroyed. Within hours, principal Ralph Watson had donations ranging from a $150 Marshalls gift card to a $6 cash contribution from a student. Several property owners offered housing as well, Watson said.

In the business community, Xion’s friend Rita Goyette put out a collection cup at her Ultra Hair and Nail Design salon on Essex Street. She raised $50 for Xion on Friday. Burke’s Tumbling Academy in Swampscott announced plans to donate a portion of one day’s revenue to help several people affected by the fire.

Debra Consoli, whose Sea Side Café used to run tabs for needy people and gave out free sandwiches after Swampscott High School football victories, said she lost her business and her dream in the fire. She’s now keeping catering commitments with help from Revere’s Point of Pines Yacht Club, where she works as a function manager. The club is letting her use its kitchen facilities free of charge.

“It was a seasonal business, and I starved this winter to stay alive,’’ said Consoli, who said she didn’t have insurance and lost all her freezers, blenders, and other business equipment in the blaze. She now plans to focus on catering private functions and working her two other jobs.

“I just have to work harder now,’’ Consoli said.

For displaced residents, rebuilding lives is a day-to-day process. One man has been exploring the option of living temporarily at the Lynn YMCA, according to Jayne Orloff Carey, whose family owned the Humphrey Street building for 40 years. Other residents, she said, are staying with family or friends. She said one of her former tenants has relocated to Cap’n Jack’s Waterfront Inn in Swampscott with help from a benefactor who is paying for 30 nights.

For area residents, the Swampscott shoreline now has a gaping void. The building, erected around 1900, had undergone many additions and modifications, but always offered a stellar view of the ocean, Red Rock Park, and the Boston skyline. Many knew it as the first home of the Athlete’s Corner sneaker shop, which outfitted runners during the 1970s jogging craze.

Though the building was underinsured, Carey said, she sees a bright future for the spot that is — for now — still a fire investigation site.

“We have to figure out the logistics [of rebuilding], but I’m sure we will rebuild,’’ Carey said. “I would never give up that piece of property.’’