It’s been almost six weeks since a nine-alarm fire on a windy June afternoon devastated tightly packed Old Morton Street near Lower Mills, causing millions of dollars in property damage and driving two dozen people from their homes. Seven properties were destroyed or seriously damaged in the blaze.
From the moments of the first alarm, neighbors have been rallying to help their stricken neighbors. This weekend, the campaign will grow to include a fundraising event at St. Gregory’s auditorium being organized by the Lower Mills Civic Association.
A GoFund Me page set up by the civic group has already raised over $7,000 online, with more donations “walking” into East Boston Savings Bank or being mailed in to the civic president.
The group hopes to raise $20,000 to help neighbors with costs or relocating, replacing goods and food and — in some instances— rebuilding.
They are all gestures that Scott Eisen, who lost his home in the fire, says serve as reminders of why he and his wife can’t wait to return once their home is rebuilt. They have lived on Old Morton Street since April 2017 and expect to re-occupy the house next year, after a nine-month reconstruction project is completed.
“We love the neighborhood,” said Eisen. “It’s cool because it’s a clash of lots of different cultures, but I love the diversity. We have amazing neighbors and now I know even more neighbors than I did before. We would do the same thing for them.”
A freelance photographer by profession, Eisen was home on that Saturday around 4:40 p.m. when the original fire broke out at a vacant multi-unit structure at 37-39 Old Morton Street that was undergoing renovations.
Eisen and his wife, who live next door to the flashpoint, were alerted to the trouble by their immediate neighbor Maureen, who is in her 80s. “It was pretty traumatic for her. We stayed with her until her kids got here to help,” said Eisen.
As he watched first responders try to contain the blaze, Eisen snapped photos— some of which are being published in this week’s Reporter for the first time— of the flames as they fully engulfed his home. The firefighters and EMTs— including a neighbor from Old Morton Street— acted heroically to stop the blaze from consuming even more housing stock. Seven firefighters went to the hospital that afternoon, none of them with serious injuries. It was an indication of the ferocity of the two-hour battle to keep the fire contained and, eventually, squelched.
Eisen and his wife are now living temporarily in Quincy and have been aided immensely by an insurance claim that is covering many of their losses, including a year of temporary housing. But, the couple– like many of their neighbors— lost all of their worldly possessions.
They’ve been buoyed by the quick response of neighbors, many of whom they only knew as acquaintances before the fire. “Literally that night someone set up a GoFundMe page for me. There was a constant stream of people reaching out, texting, calling. It was very nice,” said Eisen.
Kerry Boyd, whose house suffered considerable fire and water damage, said she learned about what was happening through a text message from an unknown number.
“I consider myself very lucky because I wasn’t home at the time,” she said. “I got a text that said ‘Call me your house is on fire.’” It was a neighbor, whose number was not saved in Boyd’s phone, alerting her to the situation.
“I was grateful because I had the opportunity to have it explained to me before I saw it in person,” she said. Boyd was approached by several concerned neighbors who checked to see if she was ok, telling her they had been looking for her.
“It just reaffirmed by decision to move to that neighborhood,” said Boyd, who had lived in the Lower Mills residence for about a year.
Terry Dolan, a retired public servant who lives at the Walter Baker condominiums, said she was reading the newspaper that Saturday afternoon when she heard a cacophony of sirens.
“We’re kind of used to hearing sirens around here, between Carney down the street and C-11. But this was clearly something different,” said Dolan, a member of the Lower Mills Civic Association. More than 25 businesses responded to the call for help immediately, Dolan said, including credit unions, realtors, and restaurants. In one example of generosity, Norfolk Hardware responded by donating $1,000 in gift cards to the affected families.
“In terms of the community, it has really been very heartwarming to see,” she said. “With Brian O’Donnell, who owns Lower Mills Tavern, the attitude was ‘Tell me what you need. Whatever you want, you tell me what you need and I’m there for you.’ And that’s the kind of response we’ve gotten from a lot of neighbors in Lower Mills, and even more broadly in Dorchester.”
Ahead of Saturday’s fundraiser, which the LMCA is “not spending a penny” on, thanks to donated food and live music, Dolan said commitments have already totaled over $18,000. She called the resilience of the affected families “amazing,” noting that one victim of the fire had moved into her building at the Baker condos, while another had relocated to the Schoolhouse apartments on River Street.
Eisen, who said that demolition on the destroyed third-floor of his property is set to begin this week, is hoping to be back in his home within a year.
“The most important thing will be to get a roof put back on the house, because we’ll need that before winter,” he said. “Everyone keeps asking us, ‘Are you going to stay?’ This is my neighborhood and I love it here. I’m not going anywhere.”
Saturday’s fundraiser will be held from 5p.m. to 8 p.m. at St. Gregory’s auditorium, 2200 Dorchester Ave. Tickets are $25 each.