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Survivors of Riverhead house fire ‘lost everything’; several efforts underway to aid displaced residents

A vacuum, dog food, toys, clothes and gift cards are some of the donations being gathered for the survivors of the fatal house fire in Riverhead late Tuesday night.

Nicole Walsh and Sandra Tezen are spearheading fundraising efforts for the survivors who lived in one of the second-floor apartments: Keith Polchies and Cindy Wilson.

Apart from receiving donations at their individual homes, both set up a Venmo account where people can donate money directly to the couple: @cindy-wilson-282.

“It goes directly to them,” Ms. Walsh said. “We felt like it was the easiest. When you do a GoFundMe, they take funds out and it’s a little bit harder to access the money.”

Ms. Tezen has known Mr. Polchies for over 40 years and Ms. Walsh has known him for about 10.

Mr. Polchies and Ms. Wilson had lived in the house for about 15 years, Ms. Walsh said. When the fire began to spread throughout the large home, they rushed out with little more than the clothes on their backs.

“They basically lost everything” Ms. Walsh said. “They got out with just their dog and the clothes on their back, not even socks or shoes.”

She said they have been staying with family since losing their home.

Five people living in three different apartments on the first and second floors survived the fire while five members of a family on the third floor all died. Suffolk County police have said the fire appears to be accidental and no criminality is suspected. The investigation is ongoing.

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Those who escaped were not injured. But they’ve been left to pick up the pieces, some without a cellphone or car keys.

“We’re trying to think of just the little things that they’re going to need to, you know, start over,” Ms. Walsh said.

The North Fork Spanish Apostolate in Riverhead is working on collecting donations for the survivors as well in a separate effort from Ms. Tezen and Ms. Walsh. Sister Margaret Smyth, the director of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, said tracking down the displaced residents has been difficult.

“People have been calling me saying we’ve got clothes, we’ve got things like that but I don’t know where they are,” Sister Margaret said. “Nobody has come forth to say I need help.”

Ms. Walsh said she and Ms. Tezen were also in touch with the other surviving members, Lori Starsiak and her adult son, Adam.

Another crowdfunding effort was started on GoFundMe by Ms. Starsiak’s son, Michael.

“We are sorry to say the fire claimed the lives of five people, and we thank God my mom and brother were spared, escaping with just the clothes they were wearing,” the GoFundMe reads.

More than $7,500 has been raised through Friday night.

The family members killed in the fire were Zonia Dinora Rivera Mendoza, her son and daughter, Carlos Cífrelo Penate Rivera and Andrea Isamar Gonzalez Rivera, as well as her two nephews, Carlos Alberto Ramos Aguirre and Douglas Edgardo Rivera Aguirre.

The building was owned by Carmela Cannella. Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said the building’s owner lived on the first floor and was among the residents who escaped.

Multiple fundraising efforts are underway for their family, including a GoFundMe that has raised over $62,000 through Friday that will go toward funeral services and transporting their bodies to their native Guatemala. Services are expected to be held in New York, but have not yet been finalized. Tuthill-Mangano Funeral Home on East Main Street is working with the families, Sister Margaret said.

Ms. Walsh said despite this tragedy, seeing how generous the community has been is extremely moving.

“I saw the GoFundMe for the family that passed, and just this morning, it being so high was just the most amazing thing,” she said.