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Community

Fire destroys home but ignites hearts

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Sydenham resident Aidi Posner was spending the last few minutes before Shabbos saying tehillim when she asked her husband, Leon, to turn on their gas heater as she was cold. He had got a new gas cylinder a few days before and was extremely fire-aware. But as soon as he turned the dial, something went wrong – the gas heater burst into flames.

“He asked me to get a blanket to dampen the fire. I ran to get one, but when I got back, he and my son, Evan, weren’t there. I looked for them, and couldn’t find them, but I heard them calling. Eventually, I realised they were outside the house – they recognised that they couldn’t contain the fire and had to get out. They had gone out the kitchen door.”

By this time, their kitchen was already burning, so she couldn’t follow that way. “I realised they were outside our lounge sliding door. I got the bowl of keys but we couldn’t figure out which key opened the security gate. Eventually we found it. I ran out, and at that point, the gas cylinder exploded. The house was engulfed in flames.”

“Soon after she got out, the roof came down. Life can change in a split second,” says her husband.

Meanwhile, not far away, their daughter, Gina Chernick, and her husband, Lior, had both got home from busy days as medical professionals. As they rushed to get ready for Shabbos, Chernick told her husband about her day working in the burns unit, which she always found difficult. “I also told him how my colleague was praising the Jewish community for how we take care of each other. If only she knew what would happen in the next 24 hours.”

Fifteen minutes later, their doorbell rang. “My domestic helper said, ‘Zaida is at the gate’, and I immediately knew something was wrong – why would he be there at that time? He came in, ran to me and said, ‘the house burnt down’.”

As the young couple reeled from the horrendous news, they dressed Leon’s hand, which had been burnt. “Driving to the house was literally like driving in a movie. The entire block was cornered off. There were so many spectators, three fire trucks, and medics. We are so thankful for the Zaka Fire Unit which came quickly to the scene, co-ordinated everything, contained the fire, and moved the cars in case of an explosion.” Local fire brigades hesitated in rushing to the scene, but eventually the Sandton fire brigade did arrive.

“I was told how the glass shattered as my mom ran away from the house, and the whole home went up in flames in 15 minutes,” says Chernick.

“I was taken to a neighbour, where I was treated for smoke inhalation,” says her mother. “I was completely traumatised. When I went out again, neighbours said ‘don’t look’. I was still holding that blanket – the only thing I had left.

“Our home of 36 years was destroyed,” says her husband. “But as the fire was burning, another fire started – that of social media. As quickly as the fire spread, so did community efforts to help. I think before the flames were out, a roster was filled to provide us with meals.”

The destruction was so devastating, holes were burnt in the floor, and the ceiling was hanging, but some parts of the property remain standing. As the family began to pick up the pieces, they went to Chernick’s home for a meal, then booked into local accommodation. The next day, they were given trauma counselling, and the reality of the situation hit hard. “But we spoke about how I had just been in the burns unit, and thank G-d, they were okay and alive,” says Chernick.

Meanwhile, the unique team effort of the South African Jewish community shifted into gear. “There wasn’t space on the roster to send a meal until mid-August. Someone gave a R3 000 MRP [Mr Price] voucher. A community member arrived with personalised toiletry bags for each family member, including their domestic helper [who escaped unharmed]. These are people who spent their Shabbos and weekend organising to help my parents even if they didn’t know them personally,” she says.

“There were non-stop deliveries. People gave beautiful, brand-new clothes. Family in Australia started a fundraiser. Someone offered for the cars to be serviced at no cost – a window had to be broken to start one car. Others offered free accommodation. People brought toothbrushes, shoes, and books to read.

“One of their good friends passed away a few years ago. His wife arrived and said, ‘I can’t give you my clothes as they’re not the right size, but please take my late husband’s tallis bag and tefillin. I was holding onto it, and I had no idea why. Now I know he wanted you [Leon] to have it.’ Everyone was crying.”

On top of all this, the family had been exposed to COVID-19, and therefore had to isolate. “All we wanted to do was go to the site to try to recover things. Zaka knew we couldn’t go, so their team offered to go there and try and salvage things for us, even though it’s not a service it offers. My brother’s room was burnt to shreds, but they found his tefillin. They also found my dad’s tallis bag on Friday night in the dark.

“My parents are givers at heart. It’s hard for them to take things from others,” Chernick says. “They and my brother are blown away and will never have the words to express their gratitude. Without the support of the community, a difficult situation would be so much worse.”

“My whole life, my parents have been fire cautious,” Chernick says. “I grew up not sleeping with heaters on and turning plugs off at night. This was a freak accident. I’m sure they would have wanted to take things, but thank G-d, they got out when they did. Every second counts in a situation like this.”

“It was terrifying and a near-death experience,” says her mother. “One minute it’s so peaceful and you’re sitting saying tehillim. The next, you don’t know if you’re going to make it. It was surreal. We are so humbled at the magnitude of people’s generosity. We don’t know where to begin to thank people.”

As the community rallies from near and far, Chernick says, “These are the moments that you realise that we really are a unique community globally. There is one heart and one neshomah that we all share. Just before the fire, my mom went to drop off a meal for someone who is ill, my husband finished a shift with Hatzolah, and my mom said tehillim for six people. I really think these small mitzvot saved them.”

“Fires are unpredictable and can happen in seconds,” says Kayla Ginsberg, a spokesperson for the Zaka Fire Unit, They cause irreparable and unquantifiable loss and trauma. We urge the community always to be aware of their surroundings and have fire-safety equipment in their homes. This equipment can save your life. Our unit is operational at all hours. Please don’t hesitate to call in case of emergency on 086 18 000 18. If you’re unsure, always call it in.

“Our full support and prayers are with the family at this very difficult time, and we wish them strength and comfort. Community members are welcome to contact info@zaka.org.za for assistance with fire-safety equipment customised to their homes.”

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