EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 4, 2013

'My home could have been saved'

Hancock Street fire victim speaks about Saturday's fast-moving fire in Lawrence

By Jill Harmacinski
jharmacinski@eagletribune.com

---- — LAWRENCE — Hancock Street fire victim Jodi Caraballo said she wanted to complain to city councilors about a lack of water pressure and faulty fire hydrants that led to the destruction of her home. But instead of attending a City Hall meeting Tuesday night, Caraballo said she was trying to find places for her three children to sleep temporarily.

“I will sleep in a car but I won’t let them do that,” said Caraballo, breaking into tears.

Caraballo, 40, purchased the three-story home at 108-110 Hancock St. 11 years ago. Last fall, she along with other neighbors watched as a “brand new” fire hydrant was installed on her street. But Saturday, after a massive fire broke out nearby at 4 p.m., the new hydrant proved pointless. As fire leapt from one adjacent house to another, fire quickly engulfed Caraballo’s home.

Firefighters said poor water pressure and non-working fire hydrants hampered their efforts. City leaders met Tuesday night to discuss ongoing problems with the city’s water system and ponder repair plans.

“It wasn’t that they weren’t doing their jobs,” Caraballo said of firefighters. “They didn’t have the tools to do their job. It (isn’t) any different than a plumber trying to do his job without any tools ... My home could have been saved if there was adequate water.”

In an emotional interview yesterday, Caraballo said it’s time for city leaders to stop talking about water and hydrants problems and aggressively address them.

“I’ve been here for 11 years and I pay my water and sewer bills ... This just isn’t about Hancock Street. How many more houses are going to go up in flames before the city decides they are going to do something about this?” she asked.

Her wedding album, children’s newborn pictures and a lock of her grandson’s hair after his first trip to the barber shop were incinerated Saturday.

”I don’t care about the TV. It’s the things that were priceless that have the most value, that mean the most to us,” she said.

After spending three nights at the Holiday Inn Express, courtesy of the Red Cross, Caraballo and her family are now nomads, living separately with friends and family at various addresses across the city.

”I am grateful that we all got out OK, but it bothers me we are not all together,” said Caraballo.

She was insured for the loss of her home, but not the contents, and is now searching for a 3 or 4 bedroom apartment or home she can rent and the entire family can be reunited.

Caraballo lives with her husband Raoul, son Jose, 22, daughter, Emily, 20, who is 8 months pregnant, and her boyfriend, Benjiman Ferrer. 24. She also has an 11-year-old daughter Cheyene, 11, a sixth grader at the Guilmette school.

In late March, Caraballo had a baby shower for Emily, who is expecting a baby girl on June 15. All her baby shower gifts were also destroyed in the 5-alarm blaze. A recording of her daughter’s recent 3D ultrasound, where you can hear the unborn baby’s heartbeat, also burned up, she said.

Caraballo was home Saturday, caring for her 1-year-old grandson, when neighbor Jessica Guzman started banging on the front door. Her daughter answered the door and Caraballo said she could hear Guzman screaming. She ran outside only to find fire charging toward her backyard, coming dangerously close to her fence and creeping up against her home.

The fire is believed to have started on a couch in a nearby alley.

Caraballo said she grabbed a garden hose, spraying water and trying to prevent the blaze from spreading to her home. But minutes later, as the flames leapt and spread, “I had to say ‘Forget it. I had to let it go.’”

Unaware of the water issues in the neighborhood, Caraballo said she became frustrated with firefighters. “I was yelling at them, asking them what they were doing. I was screaming ‘Put the water on my house.’ I was begging them,” she said.

“I stood there, looking at my own home. I could see the flames coming out my bedroom windows,” she said.

Fortunately, before fire engulfed her home, Caraballo was able to grab her purse with her cell phone inside. Having her personal documents and ID as well as her cell phone has been invaluable, she said.

Early Sunday morning, Caraballo went back to her home. Firefighters were there, hosing off a room where the fire had rekindled. Then, she had an opportunity to talk to crews about the water issues and how the fire spread.

The cause of the blaze remains under investigation. Caraballo paid $159,999 for the home and still owes $131,000. “I’m going to walk away with nothing,” she said.

Above all, Caraballo said she is homesick and desperately “wants to go home.”

”But I don’t have a home,” she said. “I would never want anybody else to experience this type of pain.”

Caraballo asked that anyone who can help her with housing for her family to call her at 978-606-5145.

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screenname EagleTribJill.