Homeowner talks about life after fire
By Joseph Kellard
Standing barefoot in the street in mid-January, watching her Tennessee Avenue home go up in flames, Cheryl Ennella ran back inside to try to rescue her three cats.
"I was really concerned about getting my cats out," Ennella recalled. "I went in the house twice. The second time, I was trying to get in my front door and a man pulled over in a truck and pulled me out."
The fire that ripped through the bungalow she had lived in for 25 years destroyed everything inside — including her and her husband's life savings, which they did not trust to banks. "There was nothing salvageable," Ennella said. "Nothing."
When a stranger led her to one dead cat during the fire, she passed out and was treated by EMS workers at the scene. For three weeks afterward, she returned to the charred ruins of the house with food for her other two cats, hoping to find them. One eventually came to her; her son found the other hiding under what was left of the house.
Since the fire, Cheryl and her husband, Silvio, and their son, Silvio Jr., have had to start from scratch. Their neighbors and friends immediately offered help, giving the family clothing, and the Red Cross gave them debit cards to buy shoes.
"It's been a lot of paperwork and a lot of legwork and a lot of heartache," said Cheryl, who on Tuesday took a bus to the Nassau County Department of Social Services for the first time to seek public assistance.
Meanwhile, she remains out of work due to poor health, but Silvio continues to work as a salesman for Drake's Bakeries in Hicksville. The Ennellas now occupy a home on West Penn Street at Grand Boulevard, but initially they had to split up, each living in a friend's house. They wanted to stay local because their only relatives are in the Bronx. "I even stayed in the Long Beach Motor Inn for three days," Cheryl recalled.
The family was at first unable to find a permanent place to stay, due in part to issues with their home insurance company, which is still investigating the fire. Cheryl fears that delays could keep her family from building a new home for at least another year.
When the fire started, at around 1 p.m. on Jan. 15, Ennella said she was home with her son and his girlfriend, who were playing cards. Suddenly she heard her son shout to call 911.
"I went to open the door from my living room to my hallway and I saw the smoke coming in from the back of my house," she said. "My son proceeded to open the back door, and the flames just flew through the house. And we ran out with no shoes on."
Ennella learned later that the man who stopped her from going back in was Gregg LePenna, owner of the Whales Tale restaurant on West Beech Street. LePenna was leaving work that day, driving down Tennessee, when he spotted Ennella in the middle of the street, shouting that her cats were inside. He pulled over to help her.
"I walked about three feet into the front of the house and I saw a big black cloud of smoke coming towards me, and I turned back around because there was no going in there," LePenna recalled. "She tried to go back in but I grabbed her."
The fire ignited in a shed at the rear of the house, which housed a washing machine and a boiler. Vincent McManus, a division supervisor at the Nassau County fire marshal's office, said the cause remains unknown, and that insurance companies will hire a mechanic to investigate equipment like the boiler to determine exactly how it malfunctioned.
Some 100 firefighters from eight companies helped battle the blaze, which they brought under control in about 40 minutes, but not before it damaged the exteriors of three neighboring homes.
Long Beach City Council members Len Torres and Mike Fagen have assisted Ennella's family since the fire. John Merit, owner of Buddy's Bike on West Beech Street, offered her a new bike, her favorite mode of transportation. Brendan Costello of the city's Transportation Department gave her a Metro card so she could use buses for free. And Fran Barden, director of the outreach program at St. Ignatius Church on Broadway, bought the family new clothes, bed linens and gift cards.
"Once in a while we get fire victims and try to get them to the Department of Social Services," Barden said. "We encourage them to go there first to see what they provide, and then, if I can afford it, I go and see what else I can do for them."