A week after they lost everything in a dramatic fire, freshman Torrai Darden and his family found an unlikely spot to celebrate Christmas—the principal’s office.
Torrai, who’s 15, was one of 10 people who found themselves homeless last week when a fire tore through the three-family home they rent at 594 George St.
In the wake of the two-alarm fire, the city ordered a demolition crew to knock down the house the same day.
The family, who had just been Christmas shopping, never got a chance to go back inside.
“We lost everything,” said Torrai’s mom, Lisa Shareef.
In the eight days since the fire, Torrai and his family has been camped out at the Three Judges Motor Lodge on the outskirts of town, slowly picking up the pieces of their lives. Torrai had lived in the first-floor apartment on George Street along with his mom and two older sisters, Tiana and Brandi. His aunt lived on the third floor with her two kids, ages 2 and 12, and Torrai’s grandma. Two of them, Tiana and Shareef, were home at the time of the fire; everyone escaped unharmed.
On Friday, Tiana and Shareef trekked to the main office at Hill Regional Career High School wearing emergency sweatpants from Walmart and assorted inherited clothes. Principal Madeline Negrón sent a staffer to summon Torrai from class.
“Call him down,” she said. “We’ll have Christmas.”
Torrai walked into a conference room off the main office and found it decked out with holiday flare. Assistant Principal Monica Joyner (pictured) had sneaked in an hour earlier and laid out sparkling place mats, little silver bells, Santa-themed lolly pops, a box of Dunkin’ Donuts doughnuts with festive sprinkles; and an array of juice and coffee. She even cued up Christmas songs on a laptop jukebox.
“This is all for you,” Principal Negrón announced.
“This is beautiful,” declared Shareef.
When they heard a member of their school had lost his home and all his belongings, students, staff and teachers rounded up donations.
“All of the staff kind of rallied together,” said Negrón.
Career staff presented the family with a packet of monetary donations and gift cards. The school collected $1,315 from parents, teachers, students and other donors. A man who smelled smoke on the day of the fire and called 911 stopped by the school to donate. A teacher mentioned the tragedy to her classmates in graduate school at Sacred Heart University; her classmates opened their wallets and pitched in $200.
One of Torrai’s cousins who also lost their home, 12-year-old Tabiaz Moore, is a student at Barnard magnet school. That school rounded up a robust set of donations, as well, including a Christmas tree and a ham.
At Career, Joyner directed Torrai, Tiana and Shareef to a corner of the room, where she had wrapped the donations in Christmas bags. Piece by piece, the trio pulled out coats, sweaters, pajamas, socks, toiletries. Torrai pulled out several items of Career Panthers gear just in time for Friday’s pep rally.
“More sweatpants!” exclaimed Tiana. She said she had been wearing the same pair for eight days. She got them at Walmart during the family’s post-fire emergency run. With $875 from the American Red Cross, they bought packs of underwear and basic clothes and food.
Tiana and Shareef shed tears as they opened the gifts.
“To lose everything, then to get this ...” Shareef said.
“It’s a blessing,” Tiana said, finishing her sentence.
Tiana, who’s 19, graduated from James Hillhouse High School in 2012. She now works at Popeyes and attends Gateway Community College. She said at the time of the Dec. 12 fire, she was taking a nap.
“I look up. There’s smoke in my room,” she recalled. “There was just flames coming out of the closet.”
“I was so afraid,” she said. She yelled to her mom to get out of the house.
Shareef, however, was worried about her own mom, who lives on the third floor.
“I’m going to get Grandma,” Tiana declared. She started heading up to the third floor. “Then we heard the windows bust” from the force of the fire. “It got bad fast. The whole house was smoking.”
They fled for safety. They later found out their grandma was safe and sound; she hadn’t been home at the time.
Tiana said she was shaken by the experience.
“That was the worst day of my life,” she recalled, with remarkable composure.
She said after the fire, she worried about all her stuff—her iPhone, all her sneakers. “I’m a big shopper,” she confessed. She never got back inside to retrieve anything.
She said in the days since the incident, she has changed her perspective.
“I’m over it now,” she said. “We can replace the material things. I’m just glad everybody’s safe.”
Tiana said she has been overwhelmed by the warm response from strangers. At Popeyes, she put out a little box with a picture of her house and a note that read, “please donate.” Firefighters have been stopping by to make donations. Many customers open their wallets, too, tossing in 10s and 20s.
“When I go in, it’s always full,” she said.
She said she’s especially touched because now is a time when people are shelling out money for the holidays. “A lot of people have to buy for their families.”
Other gifts have been popping up, too. Brandi, who works at KFC in North Haven, said her manager took her out to buy her essentials after the fire.
Shareef said Torrai showed up to the Three Judges motel one day with a gift from an anonymous donor.
“He came home with an iPod,” she said. Then she stopped herself. “I keep saying ‘home.’ He came to the room.” The family has been staying at the Three Judges while they house-hunt. They haven’t had a home-cooked meal since before the fire.
Shareef said the process has been painful. She lost photos of her grandma, who passed away. And “we can’t even drive by” George Street.
But “we’re still laughing,” Shareef said. “Our spirits are high.” The motel life isn’t bad, she said. They’re staying in a room connected by an internal door to Shareef’s mom, Shareef’s sister, and her kids. “We’re actually bonding.”
Shareef said the family plans to rent a hotel room at a nicer place, the New Haven Premiere Hotel and Suites on Long Wharf, for the actual Christmas Day. Shareef’s mom, the cook in the family, plans to fix up her famous yams and banana pudding.
“We did all our crying once we saw the house come down,” Shareef said. “It’s still kind of shocking.”
“But as long as we’re together, we’re OK.”
To donate money to the family, stop by the Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen at 35 Whalley Ave. or mail a check to Lisa Shareef at P.O. Box 8867, New Haven, CT 06532.