By Emily Drooby and Erin DeGregorio
WINDSOR TERRACE — One of the most terrifying moments teacher Emily Espinal and her family ever experienced was a fire that spread from a next-door neighbor’s attic to their home last month.
A few days into 2021, the bedroom of Espinal’s 6-year-old daughter Mia — filled with newly opened Christmas presents on the second floor — was extensively damaged in the middle of the night. Espinal and her family made it out of their house, unharmed, on Jan. 3.
“When I got upstairs, I noticed the blinds on her windows were melting already,” Espinal recalled. “While I was grabbing Mia and her shoes, I guess the first responders had gotten there, and they started extinguishing next door. The pressure from the water, along with the fire, exploded her window.”
When Karla Rosero, the class parent for Espinal’s third-grade class at St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Academy, heard from Espinal what had happened, she wanted to help.
“Once I got more details, I reached out to Mrs. Germann [SJTWCA principal] about creating a [school-wide] fundraiser,” Rosero said, noting Espinal had already made a public Amazon Wish List on Jan. 5. “It was like a part of our mission, as Christians, to help each other. I think it was just natural for the community to come together.”
Families purchased and replaced all the gifts Mia had lost and donated additional funds to Espinal’s personal Venmo account. Emma Graves, whose son is also in Espinal’s class, donated toys from her business, Brooklyn Herborium, for Mia and her 3-year-old brother Eli.
“We know how much she’s able to have a positive influence on our kids and our families,” Graves said of Espinal. “So, for us to be able to return that and give her that same kind affection and appreciation was really awesome.”
Upon returning to school later that week, Espinal was shocked to find multiple gifts waiting for her. “I remember coming in Thursday [Jan. 7], and I couldn’t even walk through the door of the office because there were bags and bags. And the parents didn’t just send things for my daughter. They sent for my son, also, because we weren’t able to go upstairs for a very long time.”
Since the fire, Espinal and her family have been living on their duplex apartment’s bottom floors. She said it took about three weeks to remove all the glass shards and dispose of Mia’s water-damaged mattress, smokey-smelling clothes, and other ruined material items. The damage, she estimates, cost at least $10,000. Espinal also noted that Mia has been seeing her school therapist once a week.
Because Mia was having a tough time sleeping afterward, Espinal reached out to two parents in her class, Megan and Joseph Heegan. Joseph, a lieutenant at Engine 284-Ladder 149 in Dyker Heights, invited Espinal and her children to visit his firehouse for a special tour on Jan. 9. He explained to the kids how the firehouse runs and how fast he and the other firefighters answer incoming emergency calls. He also reviewed with them how to dial 911 and other general fire safety rules.
“It’s a very traumatic event for any person — and, for a child, I think even more so — to figure out how to deal with it. I think a lot of the fear is that it may happen again, and it’s tough to get over that initial fear,” Heegan said. “Part of bringing them to the firehouse and letting them see how we respond … I think put them a little bit at ease in just knowing that we’re only a phone call away.”
Later that evening, Heegan received a message from Espinal that said it was one of the first times Mia slept through the night. “He explained to her why it’s never OK to go back in the house when there’s a fire,” Espinal added. “He told her, ‘All of that can be replaced, but you can’t.’ And I think that really stuck with her.”
Since this is her first year teaching at the Windsor Terrace school, Espinal said she feels indebted to the families who have shown their support.
“I sent out a notification to all parents, thanking them, and I told them, ‘During my daughter’s darkest times, this community held out a lantern for her,’” she said. “I can never repay them.”
Espinal added, “I’m just so grateful to be a part of this community. The way they took me in when I felt like I was at my lowest, it was just so beautiful.”