At 3 a.m. Thursday morning, Laurie O'Brien woke up to a blaring smoke alarm that went off upstairs in her family's Portland Avenue home. She ran downstairs to see smoke was pouring from the first-floor bedroom of her daughter Alyssa, a 19-year-old who is severely disabled.
O'Brien's husband, Tom, bounded into Alyssa's room, which had quickly become engulfed in flames. He grabbed Alyssa and rushed Laurie, their 11-year-old son, Colin and family dog out of the house. Miraculously, no one was injured.
In addition to losing valued possessions such as family photos, baby books and clothing, the O’Briens now face devastating challenges. They are currently staying with family nearby, but Alyssa, whose disability has rendered her incapable of speech or the ability to walk, lost all her medicine and special equipment in the fire.
“My daughter has a rare seizure disorder and is very seriously disabled," O'Brien said. "She is nonverbal and nonambulatory. The things we lost in the fire cannot be easily replaced. Her wheelchair alone cost $12,000. We lost her medicine, her feeding equipment, her bed. We need to find a place to stay where we can bathe her in a shower stall and take care of her medical needs.”
“There was heavy fire coming from the first floor window on the right side," said Scotch Plains Fire Chief Jonathan Ellis, who was the first firefighter to arrive at the scene. The visible fire was knocked down in about 15 minutes but the fire department continued to operate, checking for additional pockets of fire for quite some time with the last fire department unit leaving the scene at 6:52 a.m. A Mountainside Engine, Garwood Engine and Fanwood Ladder covered Scotch Plains while we were fighting the fire,” Ellis stated.
Captain Brian Donnelly of the said the fire department is still investigating the cause of the fire, but it appears to be electrical. Donnelly said the house will likely have to be demolished.
“I can’t even think about all that right now,” Laurie O'Brien said when faced with the fact that her house will be demolished. “I came to lock all the doors because they have to board the house up right away. “Everything is gone.”
Jaclyn Villane, 16, lives two houses down from the O’Brien home. She said her mother woke her up when she heard fire engines roaring down her street.
“The whole road was blocked off, but by the time we went outside at about 4 a.m., it seemed like they had already put out the fire. I am glad everyone got out okay,” she said.
Still, 12 hours after the fire was extinguished, a smoky smell lingered on Portland Avenue near the O'Brien's home. The front door is open, revealing a charred staircase leading to the second floor. The front of the house is destroyed, the siding has been stripped and the roof blackened.
Alyssa’s bed frame and other belongings were dragged into the driveway, beneath a basketball hoop and disheveled hockey net that were untouched by the flames.
As Laurie recounted the tragedy and struggled to figure out where to go next, neighbors and friends walked by or drove up to the house to offer warm embraces and kind words. One friend brought the family a takeout dinner from Panera and Laurie tried to form a plan for her family.
“We are not a normal family with normal needs,” she said. “I need to quickly find a place to live that is close by so my son can stay at Park Middle School, and Alyssa can still be transported by the district to an out of district school.'
If anyone wants to help the O'Briens or has space available in a handicapped-accessible home, email firstname.lastname@example.org and Patch will connect you with the O'Briens.