After the fire: Burney family rebuilds
Alexis Burney, her three children, and her fiancé, Keith Yasinsky, are working hard this holiday season to pick up the scorched pieces of their lives, after an early morning fire on November 2 badly damaged their Fisher Road Town House apartment in Edgartown.
Physically there is little to pick up, although Ms. Burney, 27, has returned several times to the Fisher Road duplex managed by the Vineyard Housing Office (VHO), hoping to find a salvageable memory or keepsake for her children or herself.
"They lost everything," Dukes County Regional Housing Authority (RHA) director David Vigneault said.
Her family lost all its worldly possessions and its orderly, happy family life, and Ms. Burney knows her principal job is to pick up her spirits in order to return a sense of order and calm to her children's lives.
She spoke to The Times this month from a temporary three-bedroom home made available by a caring off-Island homeowner who heard of the family's plight. Describing the fire and its aftermath, her words often came with difficulty, but her voice brightened with hope as she described efforts by her family, community organizations, and by complete strangers to help.
"Personally, I have to be strong for the kids, I can't be down or act depressed," she said, noting that some of the rhythms of normal life are returning after three weeks of living in a hotel. "They are getting back to school, riding their bikes. If they see a Yorkie puppy, they'll be upset, but it's getting better," she said of the fire that also claimed the life of a new family pet, a Yorkshire terrier puppy.
The blaze, the result of a stove burner left on firefighters said, occurred after 6 am, while Ms. Burney, her son, eight, and two daughters ages five and six, were driving Mr. Yasinsky to work.
"I was gone less than 10 minutes, when a neighbor called and told me the house was on fire. I dropped the kids off at my grandmother's and raced home. It was unbelievable how fast the fire spread," she said.
Ms. Burney secured the Fisher Road apartment as a client of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority and the housing authority immediately relocated the family to the Clarion Hotel in Edgartown. In the first days, she recalled, "We were down to a toothbrush. It was difficult. No space or toys for the kids. I didn't sleep, really, for a week and a half," the Oak Bluffs native said.
Ms. Burney made repeated trips to the laundromat to try to remove water, soot and smoke smell from family clothes retrieved from the home. "I just couldn't get that smell out," she said.
As an Islander, Ms. Burney is familiar with the Island's spirit of generosity. While she is more comfortable giving than receiving, she understands her family's own immediate need.
The Red Cross provided emergency funds to buy clothes for her children and a change of clothes for Ms. Burney and her fiancé. A ray of sunshine appeared while they were clothes shopping.
"We were in line at the checkout counter, just talking about it all, and a woman in line behind us must have heard us talking. She just handed me $50, just pressed it into my hand. She wouldn't identify herself. I really wanted to send her a note, but she wanted to be anonymous," Ms. Burney said, adding, "Another woman saw what she did for us and said 'that wouldn't happen off-Island.'"
The Burneys lived in the Fisher Road apartment for more than seven months, and it had become a home, Ms. Burney said.
"It took a while to get settled, but we kept at it and it felt like home, just walking down the walkway. We put so much work and effort and money into the place, it felt ... comforting," she said. "I was thinking about that when I went back to look for things this week."
While the loss of clothes, furniture and appliances makes life hard, Ms. Burney said she mourns the loss of "things of fundamental value, like pictures of Keith's mom who passed away a few years ago and all the pictures of the kids as babies."
Mr. Vigneault said, "As I think about it now, they are a great example of good parenting. If they had left the children at home for 'just a few minutes' as we're all tempted to do from time to time, who knows what we would be dealing with today." He noted that the rapid response, beginning with the Edgartown Fire Department and including the RHA's insurer, who had an adjuster on the site the following day, limited the damage and allowed the repair process to begin quickly.
"Several years ago, we added a rider that covers transitional costs, such as temporary housing, in the event of a fire," Mr. Vigneault said. "We rarely have claims, perhaps three in our history, so we are regarded as a good customer, I guess." The VHO insures with the Regional Housing Authority Insurance Group, a national public housing insurer, he said.
"A great amount of our (VHO) loss is covered and the Burneys' transition expenses are covered, but their belongings and cleanup are not. They need assistance for that. Some cleaning costs, such as furniture, are covered, but the Burneys need replacing, not cleaning. They are facing some heavy costs, but for a few months, rent won't be one of them," he said.
A fund to help the Burney and Yasinsky family has been established at The Bank of Martha's Vineyard (Sovereign). Donations may be made at any branch or mailed to: Bank of Martha's Vineyard, P. O. Box 2151, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.
Jack Shea is a regular contributor to The Times.