Students aid family in off-campus fire
When a house on Clayton Avenue in Cortland caught fire Nov. 18, three SUNY Cortland students who live across the street were among the first to respond to help the two families who escaped from the blaze.
The accidental fire at 37 Clayton Ave. badly damaged the homes and apartments and belongings of seven children under 14 and five adults. Firefighters removed three dogs from the residence, saving one of them.
That evening, at the sound and sight of the Cortland Fire Department’s fire engines, Holly Wright, Jessie Ciufo and Seylah Ferguson brought blankets and warm outwear to their displaced neighbors — including three women’s varsity lacrosse team coats.
Wright is the women’s lacrosse team captain. Ciufo, who doesn’t play lacrosse, is president of the Cortland Dance Company, a student sport club. They both live at 40 Clayton Ave., with several women’s lacrosse players. Ferguson lives at 38 Clayton Ave.
Over the next hour-and-a-half, the three seniors stayed to give water and Gatorade to the family and firefighters and offer gentle hugs and words of reassurance to children and the mothers while firefighters controlled the blaze and investigated the scene. City firefighters were assisted by City of Cortland Police, the Homer Fire Department, NYSEG, National Grid, and the Cortland County 911 center.
“You never know how you’re going to react in those kinds of moments,” said Wright, an inclusive childhood education major from Huntington, N.Y., about the boy with an injured pet dog they sheltered. “In that moment, it was just us being there with him and letting everyone know that, yes, we’re college kids, and that’s a different world, but we’re here with them no matter what.”
The courage, kindness and quick action of Wright, Ciufo and Ferguson were acknowledged by the city of Cortland and its fire company in a presentation of plaques to the three women at the Cortland City Council meeting on Dec. 5 at City Hall. The ceremony was attended by city fire and rescue officials as well as SUNY Cortland President Erik J. Bitterbaum and Vice President for Student Affairs Greg Sharer.
Cortland Mayor Scott Steve vividly remembers how Wright and Ciufo, a criminology major from Brockport, N.Y., comforted a 13-year-old boy who had lived in the burning house.
“They went and got one of their lacrosse coats and were just standing there hugging him,” Steve said. “He was just sitting there, couldn’t take it all in because all the family members were just falling apart.
“It was not a pleasant scene. There was a dog that was suffering, and one dog passed away. I had a firefighter laying on the ground trying to resuscitate it, but he couldn’t get it back.”
Derek Reynolds, deputy chief, Cortland City Fire Department, is thankful for the students’ actions, while firefighers focused on putting out the fire.
“The students’ willingness to help keep the family members calmed down, give them a place to shelter in a warm place while the fire suppression efforts were going on was extremely helpful,” Reynolds said. “Even after the fire was out, and we were investigating the fire, the students still had their house open to the family members to stay warm, make phone calls and do whatever else they needed to do.
“It was an amazing sight to see the town and gown relationship flourish,” he said. “We were pretty excited to see the college students step up and help community members in need when the time arose.”
Ferguson, a physical education major from New Windsor, N.Y., didn’t know the other two women, but joined them on the scene, watering and walking a surviving dog.
“I am just grateful that we were here to help them,” she said
Wright and Ciufo think their family background might explain why they simply sprang into action and stuck around for the next hour and a half.
Wright’s dad volunteers as a firefighter. Her oldest brother is a New York City Police officer while a second brother is currently training to become a state trooper. Her sister is a social worker, and her mother teaches children with a hearing disability. Ciufo’s mom is a nurse, and her dad works for a public water authority.
The morning after the fire, the pair from 40 Clayton Ave. returned to present 24 donuts and a case of water to the family members salvaging their belongings.
“It’s just something to eat and also, there’s little kids there, to distract them for a moment,” Wright said. “Like, I’ve got a strawberry frosted donut, I’m O.K.”
Donations to help the families may be dropped off at the Cortland Fire Station, 21 Court St. An update on the families and their needs can be found on the mayor’s Facebook page.