METHUEN — Four days after Christmas, the children living at 115 West St. were still playing with their gifts.
Nicholas Meas, 16, asked for and received a saxophone, said his mother, Siyla Meas.
Then, about 9 p.m. on Dec. 29, a fast-moving fire broke out in the historic building, and within minutes, the home was engulfed in flames.
Siyla Meas said she was in a room with her 3-year-old, Logan, when her husband, Loum, pounded on the door and ordered everyone out of the house.
It was 20 degrees outside, she said.
“As soon as they said, ‘Get out,’ I grabbed the baby and got all the kids out,” she said. “I just dropped everything and left.”
Meas said she and her husband have three children and that they share the house with her sister and husband and their two children.
“It was the first Christmas at the new house,” Meas said, noting that they painstakingly restored the home, which was built in 1868. “The children lost their toys.”
The saxophone sustained smoke damage, she said.
Although Meas describes herself and her extended Cambodian family as “private people,” she had no idea what was about to happen as her new neighbors — they had only lived there since March — would astound her with toy and clothing donations and a GoFundMe fundraiser that has already brought in about $10,000.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “It’s so overwhelming — It brings us to tears.”
Wanting to help
About 9:30 p.m. on the same day of the fire, Emily Cronin, 22, a West Street neighbor, was on her way home from shopping at Target when she came upon emergency vehicles blocking the road.
An officer told her there was a house fire on her street and that a “family of nine was OK, but that the house was not so great.”
“I had no idea there was a family of nine on my street,” said Cronin, a junior at Endicott College.
Realizing she couldn’t make it to her house, Cronin parked and thought about what to do next.
Over the summer, Cronin said, she and a friend nearly died in a moped accident on Block Island. She still needs more surgery to repair her wounds.
The accident, Cronin said, gave her a whole new perspective on life — realizing she had to help the five children and four adults who lost their home even though she didn’t know them.
“It was a huge moment for me,” Cronin said, reflecting on the two or three hours she spent in her car with her dog, Bindi, waiting for West Street to reopen.
“I’m extremely grateful for life,” she said. “I am lucky enough to be here. I need to help others around me — be a presence.”
Social media campaign
Cronin went straight to Snapchat, where she recounted the family’s tragedy and asked for suggestions about what she and her friends could do to help the fire victims.
“I got on Snapchat and posted onto my story what was going on and to spread the word,” she said. “I promised I’d help out and if anyone wanted to help, to reach out and let me know.”
Even before she got home later that night, “I got a flood of text messages and calls,” she said. “I still wasn’t sure what to do, but it was an amazing response. I was appreciating how amazing this community could be.”
The next day, she started a GoFundMe page. As of Friday, she said, they raised just under $10,000.
Methuen City Councilors Mike Simard and Allison Saffie also reached out, working with Cronin to organize a donation drop-off site.
They spoke with Ryan McVann, director of the Methuen YMCA at 129 Haverhill St., to secure a safe, indoor area for donations. He gladly made space available. Soon, it was filled with toys, clothing, household items and more.
“It’s in one of the conference rooms,” Simard said, adding that the family can “go pick through what they need.”
Simard said he and Saffie are also collecting gift cards that can be dropped off at their homes.
“We got so many donations,” Cronin said, noting that she put a list on Instagram and Facebook, trying to think of items anyone might need after suffering a devastating loss. “I can’t imagine losing that much stuff.”
‘Can’t go’ home
People from across the region have responded, Cronin said.
“It’s not just Methuen,” she said. “We have donors from Andover, North Andover — all over the Merrimack Valley. It’s incredible. Just when you lose faith in the world, this happens. It’s beautiful to see — the togetherness.”
Meas is incredibly moved by the outpouring of good will.
“People around the neighborhood have been so helpful,” she said. “The donations, especially for the kids — we were able to get some stuff for the kids.”
But it’s been hard, she added.
“We are just trying to put the pieces together,” she said. “We have a 3-year-old who says he wants to go home. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t understand we can’t go back yet.”