By Bill Kirk
---- — LAWRENCE — Toni Durfee didn’t think it could get any worse.
At around 2 a.m. the morning of Jan. 19, she and her extended family of children and grandchildren living at 70 Berkeley St. woke up to the sound of burning timbers and the glow of a house fire.
“I have sleep apnea so I woke up and smelled plastic,” said Durfee, 48. She looked out her first-floor bedroom window, which overlooks the back yard, and saw an orange glow, but she didn’t know what it was or where it was coming from. Then she heard crackling, which thought sounded like rain.
“Then I heard my granddaughters running around upstairs,” she said. “I got up and went into the kitchen and all at the same time, the neighbors started pounding on the kitchen window and my daughter ran downstairs yelling that the house was on fire.”
Durfee and nine others, including her children and grandchildren, fled the two-family dwelling. They watched from a neighbor’s house across the street as their home for 15 years was destroyed. Hampered by low water pressure and beaten back by the ferocity of the blaze, even firefighters were powerless to stop the relentless destruction.
As bad as it was, the next day things got worse.
At 8 a.m. Sunday Durfee’s former husband allegedly broke into the building and stole a 32-inch LG television, an Apple computer, a laptop and a radio, according to a police report on the incident.
The next door neighbor, David Vasquez, told police he “observed his ex-neighbor Richard Ayala in the yard with a beige trash barrel full of stuff.” He said it looked like it was loaded with electronics, including a computer and a TV.
Police now have a warrant out for the arrest of Ayala, 47, who is currently homeless but was living in the house until late last year, on charges of breaking and entering with intent to commit a felony, and larceny.
Durfee said her ex-husband broke into a detached garage on the property and grabbed a screwdriver. Then he pried open the first-floor window of her bedroom and climbed in. She said the fire damage to her room and another room in the back of the house wasn’t as severe, so that the electronics may have not been as badly damaged as the rest of the belongings in the house.
“But I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know if they worked or not”
As bad as things have been, there is somewhat of a silver lining, she said.
Durfee said she’s been heartened by the outpouring of support from her family, people in the community and even her employer.
Her son, Anthony Abate, has organized a fund-raiser at Fuddruckers on Route 114 in North Andover. From 5-8 p.m. this Saturday, 20 percent of the proceeds from every meal will be donated to a fund dedicated to Durfee and her family.
The event, being held on Durfee’s 49th birthday, was supposed to be a surprise. But when she went to the Lawrence Police station to pick up the report on her ex-husband, she saw a flyer on the counter in the foyer, advertising a ‘Fuddruckers Fundraiser!’ for ‘Toni Durfee Family.’
She said she was almost reduced to tears when she saw it.
“I had no clue, and then I realized it was on my birthday,” she said.
While her 33-year-old daughter and her four children have found housing, Durfee and her kids, including children who are 12 and 14, are still living in an area hotel.
She said they have received donations of clothing, but are looking for furniture and other household items.
She said her employer, First Federal Savings Bank in Andover, where she works in customer service, has also helped.
“The owner donated a good chunk of money,” she said, adding that she has worked at the bank for two years.
Meanwhile, HEAL Lawrence Mass., a group of community activists, has helped raise donations as well through an aggressive Facebook campaign.
“They were the first ones who reached out to us,” she said, noting that Wayne Hayes and Juan Gonzalez in particular have been extremely helpful.
“If it weren’t for that man, we’d be lost,” she said, referring to Hayes. “He came to our hotel room. He’s been fabulous. He brought us donations, gift cards ... he’s been very helpful.”
If you go What: Fund-raiser for victims of Berkeley Street fire Where: Fuddruckers, Route 114, North Andover When: Saturday, Feb. 2, 5-8 p.m. How: 20 percent of proceeds from meals ordered from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. will go to the Toni Durfee family