With four simple words, Natalie Fonville described the apocalyptic terror her family faced 10 days ago.
“It was raining fire,” she said.
The torrential embers were being scattered by 50-mph gusts from a vacant building across South 14th Street in Newark. It was 3:30 in the morning and the temperature outside was 5 degrees. Not wind-chill. Wind still. Between the gusts and the cold, it was life-threatening.
Some of the residents in the half-dozen row homes across the street from the burning building were awakened by sirens. Same for the people in the apartment building on 9th Avenue behind the row homes. The fire was spreading quickly and with a hellish violence that destroyed all the buildings it touched and left 59 people homeless.
MORE: Recent Mark Di Ionno columns
What follows is a story about a city that works.
Newark, long-plagued by deficits that cut essential services, proved on the night of the fire it had entered a new era of competency.
Roads that would once be snow-bound for weeks, were plowed, allowing emergency vehicles to respond unobstructed.
Fire department manpower, bolstered by a new class of 68 recruits, was muscular enough to put 120 firefighters at the scene, containing what could have a wind-whipped conflagration that would have consumed several city blocks.
And where once the people routed by the fire would have been sheltered in makeshift dormitories by the Red Cross, the city put them up in a hotel and, less than three days after the fire, all were in somewhat permanent housing.
Credit the Mayor Ras Baraka administration.
“Things are definitely better,” said Newark Fire Chief Rufus Jackson, who came up through the ranks, and was made chief by city Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose, a Baraka appointee.
While Jackson’s job was to put out the fire, it was Newark Health Department chief Mark Wade’s job to get the victims sheltered.
All 59 people who were displaced were into more permanent housing by Monday. After three days at the Robert Treat Hotel, they were moved to the John F. Kennedy Community Center Monday morning. None had to stay the night.
“The mayor’s people found us an apartment,” said Tony Fonville, Natalie’s husband.
For Jackson and Wade, a pediatrician whose resume includes creating his own health care system and humanitarian agency, the catastrophe was a literal baptism by fire. Jackson has been chief for a year and Wade, also appointed by Baraka, has been in his job for eight months.
“I think we have the right people in place to be ready not only for the day-to-day problems, but these kind of events,” Baraka said.
When the fire started, residents such as the Fonvilles and their children had time to grab nothing but their coats. The family tried to go out the front door, but it was already on fire.
“We went out the back and we had to climb two fences,” Natalie Fonville said. “The first one was easy. The second one was higher.”
Beyond the second fence in the densely packed…