Tragic Fire Brings Out Best in Sea Isle
By Dave Bontempo
Marie Zielinski celebrates her daughter’s birthday at her Sea Isle City house. From left, Marie Zielinski, Christopher Corso, Nina Corso Rosu and Joseph Corso.
Hometown Heroes often fit two categories.
The first concerns individuals enriching a community. One for all.
The second involves a large group aiding an individual or family in crisis. That’s all for one.
The latter describes Sea Isle City residents, businesses, civic leaders and friends of Nina Rosu and her brother, Joseph Corso, longtime homeowners struck with a multilevel tragedy – the loss of their 54th Street home, countless memories and their
89-year-old mother, Marie Zielinski – in a horrific fire Nov. 29.
The community rallied for them, supplying gift cards, flowers, food and financial donations all winter. One aspect of this incalculable toll, the need for clothing and shelter, was visible to them. Other elements were tough to comprehend, like the sudden loss of a parent and artifacts connecting roughly 80 years of family memories. And there’s displacement, possible relocation and the financial stress of paying mortgage on a vanished property while awaiting insurance money to rebuild.
Rosu, who describes this as the lowest point of her life, has nonetheless been lifted by friends and family. So many that three months after the tragedy, she sought to formally thank those who had helped. But where to start? The mayor’s office, the Red Cross, individuals, organizations and strangers all were involved. She considered an advertisement, yet it was ultimately decided to highlight a community that defines itself by compassion.
Residents could grasp that Rosu and her brother, Joe, who owned the other side of the housing unit, had lost everything. People might not have known that their grandfather had built a cottage on the property in the 1940s, or that it had been torn down and changed to condos in 1988. It was a bridge to generations of the family. And then it wasn’t.
Support came from several sources. Some was from strangers who heard of the tragedy. Other help arrived from areas of life with which she had interacted for decades. Rosu has belonged to the St. Joseph Church for practically her whole life. Fellow parishioners assisted by methods including gift cards and a second church collection.
“People here are very generous,” says Rev. Joseph Perreault. “When a need is presented to them, they take care of their own, just as they have in situations regarding hurricane victims, etc. [which may occur outside of this area].
“When it became apparent that this affected one of our parishioners, it seemed to be the natural thing to do. When you went down to the property, you can see they lost almost everything and, at the end of the day, taking care of people who are in need is what we are all about. It is part of our identity as Christians.”
Contributions take many forms, he adds. That includes mere physical presence, a critical benefit in the aftermath of tragedy.
Zielinski’s 54th Street home before the tragic fire.
“You usually begin speaking to people in situations like this by saying, ‘There are no words,’ especially if the loss is immediate and when people are still in shock,” Perreault says. “There is a sense of disbelief when people read about these things in the newspaper after thinking it will never happen to them or people they know and love, but then it does.
“Part of being a community of faith is that you are there for the person who is in need. People may not know what to say at these times, but their presence speaks volumes about how much they care.”
People who don’t come here every day also weighed in. Dustin Laricks, of Laricks Real Estate in Sea Isle, brought modern technology to the mix. A string of emails to his clients, many of whom own second homes here, produced a collection of gift cards.
“I find that clients who purchase second homes here regard Sea Isle not just as a vacation property but as a home away from home,” he says. “After news of Nina’s tragedy came out, I started receiving phone calls from people who had homes on the island, asking what they could do to help. The gift cards they sent could be used at various places for the items they would need for rebuilding.
“Quite a few of these clients gave very generously, some without even knowing her, but just understanding that she is part of our community. All of the people in this office, I think that’s eight of us, also purchased gift cards.
“This is such an unbelievable tragedy and people wanted to help but were not sure about what was the right thing to do.”
Laricks, who has lived all of his 41 years here, believes the outreach reveals Sea Isle City at its core. In typical small-town spirit, he says he has known Rosu “practically forever” and that his business uses her Epicurean Cleaning Services to prepare rental properties for their next tenants.
Rosu’s connections spread to the culinary world. Nina and her brother, Joseph, operated the Epicurean restaurant for several years here and later ran the Epic Grille in Mays Landing. Lauren Oliver, part of the ownership group at Basilicos Ristorante in Sea Isle City, helped spearhead the restaurant’s effort to assist Rosu.
“We just figured we should try to help this local family,” she says. “Many of our customers brought in clothing and gift cards, some other businesses donated from their boutiques. The outpouring from Sea Isle was heartwarming. So many people wanted to help, that was really nice.”
“This is a small town, in which a lot of the people know everyone. When tragic things happen, people really come together, like in floods and storms, helping give people a safe place, etc. When you are in need of something, there are so many people in this town who are so quick to help. We are raising our boys here, showing them the right things to do. There is something special about Sea Isle, we love it.”
Throughout Sea Isle City, many people knew someone who contributed to this effort. The outpouring left Rosu extremely grateful and facing the overwhelming task of acknowledging everyone’s kindness. The community’s combined efforts send a strong message to someone enduring tragedy: you may be on your own, but you are not alone.
Gratitude from Nina
Tragedy and human warmth. The qualities accompany each other when people face monumental, almost unspeakable, pain.
Nina Rosu, who has faced the grief and hardships from the Nov. 29 fire that claimed her home and the life of her mother, Marie Zielinski, tries to rebuild, one step at a time. Part of that process is acknowledging the help of Sea Isle City residents, officials, and those who don’t know her. Some sent gift cards. Some brought food. Some just stopped by.
“If I tried to mention everyone, I would leave somebody out,” she says. “What has been shown by friends and neighbors, along with strangers, has been pretty amazing. It has restored my faith in humanity. I feel lucky enough never to have faced something tragic before and yet this is the worst time of my life now.
“We [her brother Joe owns the other side of the building that was destroyed] were left with what we had on our backs that day. People bringing food and clothing, all kinds of things to help us, has been deeply appreciated. Some people we did not even know and yet they helped us. Heartwarming does not even begin to explain how we felt. We were in a really bad place when that happened. Right now, it’s just about doing the best we can, figure out what to do next.”
Three months afterward, Rosu wrestles with the entire problem. Physical structures can be replaced, but artifacts cannot.
“There are so many memories built into it,” she says. “This was the place that my mom, my husband and I, along with our kids, lived. We prepared meals together, we were really a close-knit family. Birthdays, holidays, we spent them together, all of us. This is a major loss. So many things that reminded me of people are gone. We had just put together four generations of family pictures onto a DVD to preserve them and that’s gone, too.”
For the time being, Rosu has moved into a nearby summer home of a family member. She does not know what will unfold in the coming weeks and months. What she does know is that people have shown their giving nature.
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