EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 6, 2013

Back on Berkeley Street: Family of nine rebuilds home almost a year after 3-alarm fire

By Yadira Betances

---- — LAWRENCE — The past 10 months have been a trying time for Toni Durfee.

After a three-alarm fire destroyed her house at 70-72 Berkeley St., she and four of her children lived in a two-bedroom hotel suite with a kitchenette in Andover. Every day, she drove her kids to and from school in Lawrence. Luckily, her daughter Amanda, who lived on the first floor of the home with her own four children, was able to get an apartment a few weeks after the fire.

It was a big adjustment for Durfee, her children and grandchildren, but it’s all finally coming to an end in time for Christmas.

Thanks to $300,000 from her homeowner’s insurance, she was able to rebuild her home on its original 113-year old foundation. Contractors broke ground in July and on Wednesday, she received the occupancy permit to move back into the house she purchased in 1998.

“We’re moving in; we’re coming home,” said an elated Durfee.

But she will never forget Jan. 19, 2013 — the day her two-story house went up in flames. The 2 a.m. fire quickly destroyed the house due to water hydrant problems.

Lawrence Fire Chief Jack Bergeron said the fire started in the attic and the cause is still undetermined.

“I thought firefighters would just put it out, but when I went outside and looked up, the house was fully engulfed. It was frightening,” she said.

From the beginning, she knew she wanted to stay in Lawrence. Born in Boston, Durfee moved to the city at age 8.

“I’ve lived here most of my life, this is my city and I did not want to leave. Plus, my kids are all rooted here,” she said.

The new home has an open space concept, a spacious kitchen with marble counter tops. On Wednesday, the refrigerator, dishwasher and stove were delivered.

Durfee, 49, and her children are looking forward to going back living to their old neighborhood, albeit in a new house.

“I’ve missed it so much,” Corey Abate said. “I didn’t like the hotel because there was nothing around there. Here, I have my family and friends.”

Durfee said her daughter, Alyssa Vazquez, never adjusted to living in a hotel, which was paid for by the insurance company, and her son, Eric did not like the food.

“I didn’t like it because it was tight quarters, I didn’t have my friends. Now I’m less stressful because I’m home,” said Alyssa, a student at the Henry K. Oliver School.

Durfee, her children and grandchildren are glad to be home again. And so are the neighborhood youngsters including Joshua Britto and Francisco Henrique.

“It was boring when they were not here,” Henrique said. “I used to come by every day to play basketball and use the pool.”

Durfee recalls her home attracted many of the neighbors who went there to swim in her pool, enjoy her barbecues, watch scary movies and camp out.

Corey Abate already bought a 10-foot-tall reindeer and Durfee purchased a 6-foot-tall fiber optic Christmas tree.

“This Christmas is going to be better than ever,” Durfee said. “Last year’s was great, but we were never able to enjoy our gifts.”

Durfee is already planning her Christmas dinner. Britto’s mother, Nina gave her a turkey with all the fixing for the feast.

Although she will miss the personal belongings and the pictures she lost in the fire, she is thankful for so many other blessings.

“Here we are, none of us lost our lives and we’re starting again,” Durfee said.

She is also grateful and overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from her family, friends, her employer First Federal Savings Bank in North Andover, local aid organization HEAL Lawrence and other area residents. A neighbor she had never met before prayed for the family the morning of the fire and donated articles of clothing.

“I couldn’t have done it without them,” she said.

HEAL Lawrence helped raise donations for Durfee and her family through an aggressive Facebook campaign.

“We started the group because there were people who needed help and didn’t know where to go,” said Wayne Hayes who leads the nonprofit with Lawrence firefighter and former mayoral candidate Juan “Manny” Gonzalez.

Hayes said he admires Durfee for her determination to rebuild and go on with her life.

“We’re just helping people who help themselves and bringing people together,” Hayes said.

HOW TO HELP HEAL Lawrence Mass., a group of community activists, are helping Toni Durfee, who is moving into her renovated home after it was destroyed by a fire last January, as well as victims of the Perry Avenue blaze on Monday Toni Durfee needs a kitchen set, three full-size bed frames, one queen size bed frame, a bureau, a living room set, a TV and TV stand. Victims of the Perry Avenue blaze need clothes -- a women's size 1 or size 3 pants and small tops, children's size 5 (boy), size 10 (girl, and size 4 (boy) clothes, as well as children's shoes, sizes 11 (boy) 3 (girl) and 9 (boy). If you have any items for these families email heallawrence@aol.com, so either Wayne Hayes or Juan "Manny" Gonzalez can make arrangements to get them.