LAWRENCE — Gone are the ashes, blackened rubble and yellow police tape. In their place are a barren, fenced-in area, boarded-up apartment buildings and foundations and frames for new houses for people who never imagined they'd own one.
Tomorrow marks the six-month anniversary of the seven-alarm fire that ravaged an entire city block, destroying 14 buildings, including the former Millennium nightclub, several Habitat for Humanity homes under construction, an apartment building and a general store. Buildings on Parker, Market and Springfield streets were damaged or destroyed.
No one was injured in the blaze that ripped through the city early on the frigid morning of Jan. 21. Still, the 180 people in 26 apartments who fled to the street in pajamas, bathrobes and blankets were forced out of their homes and lost most everything.
In the end, the damage was assessed at $4 million.
Rebuilding efforts have been slow. By many accounts, a sure sign of hope is the work being done by Merrimack Valley Habitat for Humanity, which builds and finances homes for low-income families.
No other building permits have been pulled to replace or repair structures in the area, said Myles Burke, director of City Inspectional Services.
Foundations on the Habitat for Humanity homes have been poured and frames put in place for three duplexes and one single-family residence on Market Street. Teams of local volunteers, including federal and city workers, have steadily worked at the sites.
"We are absolutely dedicated to getting the two houses that families were about to move into completed as quickly as we can," said Larry Sharp, executive director for Merrimack Valley Habitat.
Two of the four Habitat for Humanity homes that were destroyed were finished and ready for occupancy.
Packed and full of anticipation before the fire, the Mbiye and Reyes families of Lawrence were forced to make other arrangements until the homes they had been working on since 2005 could be rebuilt.
After the fire, Ruthie Reyes stood among piles of boxes in the kitchen of the Tenney Street apartment she, her husband and their four children were ready to leave.
"I don't know — maybe I should unpack," she said at the time. "It won't be happy. Usually, when you unpack, it's because you move to a new home."
The Reyeses opted to stay in their apartment until their Habitat for Humanity home is rebuilt. The Mbiye family, including a husband, wife and seven children, got temporary accommodations on Gale Street.
Sharp loves driving by the frames that embody the work that has been done in just six months.
"I go by there as often as I can. It's like watching something that grows back in the spring," Sharp said. "I'm pretty proud of everyone involved in the effort."
He said people were digging foundations before the city had trucks removing rubble from the site.
"We've been working hard at it ever since," he said.
Paul Reddick of Lawrence Pumps, which donated the property for the homes, said he's happy with the pace of the work, too.
Lawrence Pumps employees 135 people near the homes. Reddick believes the work the nonprofit group is doing will create a neighborhood that's "just not a business area, but a strong residential area."
"I'm very optimistic about that," Reddick said.
Reddick also is pleased that city officials, as promised, had the fire site cleared so quickly. Close to 70 percent of Lawrence Pumps' business comes from overseas, and visitors come from all over the world to visit the 371 Market St. business. He was concerned "the first thing they were going to see was this burnt-out site."
In January, Mayor Michael Sullivan said he'd have the site cleared in 30 days, "which he did or was pretty close to," Reddick said.
The demolition cost $170,000 and was paid for from city grant funds. Liens then were placed on the properties until insurance money could be recouped.
Fire investigators determined the massive blaze was sparked at the former nightclub property at 44 Parker St. Two months after the fire, owner Nereyda Trempe and her husband, Geraldo Torres, said they hoped to rebuild a restaurant with four apartments. They were waiting to hear about financing because they didn't have insurance on the property.
While investigators determined the fire broke out at the nightclub, the exact cause will never be known because the damage was so severe.
As they searched for a cause, detectives had plenty of leads — space heaters were in the nightclub without a permit three days before the fire. The building could easily have been broken into, but a host of suspicious causes were exhausted.
The heaters were so burned that investigators never could tell if they were on when the fire broke out. No one was charged after the fire.
This week, Trempe, of Methuen, acknowledged that her rebuilding plans are somewhat shaky. She said a meeting was planned this past week to discuss the topic, but would not provide further details.
"Everything changed overnight," she said. "Time goes by so fast."