By Jeannie O’Sullivan - www.phillyburbs.com
FLORENCE — A fire may have claimed the homes and possessions of 14 Pemberton Township residents two weeks ago, but it couldn’t make a dent in a generous and determined community.
Many of the people displaced by the two-alarm blaze at the Pine Village Inn on Feb. 26 were among the dozens of revelers taking in food and music at Dr. Lou’s Place, a Hornberger Avenue bar as well known for its community fundraisers as for its signature wing sauce and open stage. Proceeds from the $20 tickets went to the victims, who are struggling to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the fire.
At the center of attention was the fourth-grader hailed as a hero for alerting the residents when she smelled smoke.
“It’s been crazy,” said Nicole Gemignani, 9, referring to the chaos following the blaze, in which a firefighter was injured.
Nicole and her mother, Helen, are living in another unit after losing everything from clothing to housewares to important documents.
One of Nicole’s admirers is Assemblyman Troy Singleton, who stopped in to read a New Jersey General Assembly proclamation that lauded her “uncommon resourcefulness in a life-threatening situation.” He also offered a definition of hero.
“It’s not who is on television or on the movie screen. It’s everyday folks who do things that come natural to them,” said Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra.
Singleton spoke against a backdrop of musical acts that included Jeff Lavin, Whiskey Grin, Jackson Rider, Quadraplex, Ginger Coyle, Casper Tunes, Dr. Phil and the Mystic. Bar owner Lou Pica performed with his own band, Privileged Few.
Since opening in 2008, Pica regularly has used the bar as a setting for music-themed benefits to help homeless people. Pica said he hoped to raise $3,000 for the victims.
“We don’t just have customers, we have a family,” said Pica, who also has established foundations to aid jobless individuals and provide technical workshops for underserved youths.
Pica’s generosity is just what Pine Village Inn resident Traci Westmoreland needs. The fire has prompted the 35-year-old, who is staying in another part of the complex with her 14-year-old son, to plan a move to Georgia.
“I’m having nightmares about the fire. I’m so grateful for everything everyone’s done,” said Westmoreland, adding that groups and individuals have been constantly dropping off food and clothing.
The outpouring of generosity began shortly after the blaze. T.J. Gemignani, a firefighter who is Nicole’s older brother, organized an item collection at the Pemberton First Aid Station, and Pine Village landlord Thomas Inge hosted a benefit at the Hornet’s Nest Sports Bar, the eatery he owns in the township.
Kelly Bryan, the event coordinator for Dr. Lou’s Place, also organized a collection of items for the fire victims.