Noe Valley Voice October 2009

Lisa Moresco, Gerry Agosta and family were showered with kind words and offers of help after their home on 27th Street was severely damaged in a fire on Aug. 8.
Photos by Tim Innes

Love Eases Heartbreak After Fire on 27th Street

By Tim Innes

Lisa Moresco was nearing the end of a sun-baked family vacation in Spain's Costa del Sol region when she got the first email: "Call me right away. I'm with Xander. He's OK. Debi.''

The news was devastating: There had been a fire in the family's 27th Street home. The interior was a charred mess. Their clothes, furniture, and appliances were destroyed. But Moresco's 19-year-old son Alexander (Xander) and six buddies who had been sleeping over at the house were safe.

More than 60 emails would follow. In them, friends and neighbors in Noe Valley described firefighters' efforts to contain the blaze and make sure all the young men got out safely. They told of myriad acts of kindness. They offered help and support. Most of all, they expressed deep affection for a family that neighbor Kathryn Woods calls "a hub in the neighborhood.''

The Aug. 8 fire, which erupted in the sauna, triggered smoke alarms that roused Xander and his friends from their beds. The young men scrambled out, some of them wearing only their boxer shorts.

According to investigators, the sauna was apparently switched on inadvertently and something--perhaps a magazine--that was left too close to the heating element caught fire.

Assured that Xander was safe, Lisa, husband Gerry Agosta, 16-year-old son Rio, and 8-year-old daughter Sophia prepared for their return to San Francisco. It was not how their three-week holiday in Marbella, where they are partners in a restaurant and nightclub, was supposed to end.

The scene they returned to was heartbreaking. The modern wood and glass house they had built less than two years earlier was a burned-out shell.

"I had trouble processing what I saw,'' says Moresco. "I couldn't really believe what was happening.''

But she could also see how members of the Noe Valley community had come together to help. From Xander she heard how next-door neighbors Gus Murad, Matt Sanchez, and Ramon Lim had assisted firefighters. How Murad had taken Xander, who had fled the burning house in his underwear, to Mission Street to buy him clothes and shoes. And how builder Mike Cassidy had boarded up the house after the fire was out.

Word of the blaze spread, well, like wildfire, among the family's wide network of friends and acquaintances. Both Moresco and Agosta are well known in Noe Valley and the Mission--she from her 15 years operating Natural Resources, a pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting resource center, and he from Buena Vista Builders, which has constructed dozens of homes in the neighborhood over the past two decades.

Friends like e-mailer Debi Skaggs rushed to the house, offering warm clothing to Xander's friends and helping them get in touch with their parents. They got the car out of the garage and helped Xander remove anything that could be salvaged. Among the treasures taken to Murad's garage for safekeeping were the children's memory boxes, artwork, photos, and journals, and the Buddha statue that had guarded the front door. Another friend, Kathy Bruin, taped posterboard to the garage door so people could leave messages of encouragement; many did.

Offers of housing poured in. Four homeowners (including two from Noe Valley) to whom Agosta had sold houses offered to put the family up in their homes. In the end, the family took temporary shelter at 24th and Grand View. They are now renting an apartment on Russian Hill while their house is being rebuilt. They hope to be back on 27th Street by next fall.

Acts of kindness continued. Chris Cosentino and Mark Pastore of Incanto, which Moresco calls "our kitchen away from home,'' treated the family to a feast. "They brought food, they brought wine, they hugged us, they kissed us,'' she says. "The whole staff poured love on us.''

Preschool operators Julia Reddy and Debra King, along with longtime friend Carrie Holder, took up a collection, which was matched by Hayes Valley merchant Lemon Twist, to help the family replace clothing. Contributors included "old friends, some of whom we hadn't seen in years, and people we didn't even know,'' says Moresco.

She's been trying to return the favor by spending insurance money at neighborhood businesses, but even that's proving difficult. One merchant still hasn't cashed the check Moresco wrote for some new clothes for Sophia.

Despite the loss of the home he built with the help of Xander, who's now attending Lake Forest College in Illinois, Agosta counts his blessings.

"The first thing Lisa and I realized is that within the grand scheme of things, we have lost little.... Our children are here and well today. The rest is stuff, and most of it can be replaced, and of what cannot, we have memories.''

He's thankful for the professionalism and bravery of the Fire Department, calling the crew from the firehouse on 26th Street "amazing.'' He says he's "glad we have such talented people working on our behalf.''

Agosta praises his insurance company ("I never thought I'd say that,'' he jokes) for making it possible for the family to rebuild their lives--along with their home.

And he thanks his friends and neighbors. "It still strikes me as amazing how quickly the news spread and how fast everyone assembled at our home,'' says Agosta. Their help and support "reflects a deep sense of community. We feel well taken care of.''

In discussing the fire and its aftermath, Moresco, Agosta, Woods, and Skaggs return again and again to the special sense of community in Noe Valley. It's a place, Skaggs notes, where neighbors look out for one another, where residents fight to save their library, children's playgrounds, and senior services, and support a thriving farmers market.

"It's such a great place to raise a family,'' says Woods, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1983. "It is a cohesive community in the good times and the bad. We want [Lisa and Gerry] to rebuild and come back home.''