Fire evicts woman, business

Jennie Sulcoski is a familiar sight to many who travel down Route 26 through Ocean View, though some who see the vibrant brunette might not know her name.

Coastal Point • DARIN J. McCANN: Rehoboth Beach firefighters survey the damage done to a home on Route 26 on Monday, July 31. Eleven departments responded to the scene, and the community is responding with help for the woman who lived in the home.Coastal Point • DARIN J. McCANN
Rehoboth Beach firefighters survey the damage done to a home on Route 26 on Monday, July 31. Eleven departments responded to the scene, and the community is responding with help for the woman who lived in the home.

Sulcoski has operated a produce stand and sold plants next to her historic Ocean View home between Central and West avenues for a handful of years. She started the produce stand in conjunction with Always in Bloom landscaping service, which her then-husband, Jeff Sulcoski, also ran from that location.

Even heavily pregnant with a daughter who now toddles around the produce stand, Jennie Sulcoski was a common sight for passers-by, outside even in the dead of winter, chopping firewood to sell at the stand or selling fresh fruit and vegetables to beach visitors and locals during the heat of the summer.

An energetic woman even late in her pregnancy, Sulcoski told the Coastal Point she enjoyed the exercise and couldn’t be persuaded to give it up.

More recently, the couple split and Jennie Sulcoski changed the produce stand’s name, and she and their daughter continued to live in the home on Route 26 and to operate her produce stand.

That was until Monday morning, when a fire tore through the two-story home, owned by Walter Skayham of Baltimore, destroying all of Sulcoski’s possessions, devastating the home and forcing an early end to what was to have been her final season at the produce stand.

Sulcoski was not home at 6:54 a.m., when the fire erupted, and no injuries were reported, fire officials said. But the fire quickly engulfed most of the home, calling out approximately 80 firefighters and other emergency personnel from 11 area fire departments before the blaze was brought under control about 10:44 a.m.

The Millville Volunteer Fire Company responded to the scene, with volunteer firefighters from the Bethany Beach, Roxana, Dagsboro, Frankford, Millsboro, Rehoboth Beach, Gumboro, Selbyville and Lewes fire companies providing support. Professional firefighters from the Ocean City, Md., fire department also responded to the scene.

Fire officials said the firefighters encountered heavy smoke on the second floor and attic area of the historic home upon their arrival. It took nearly five hours to extinguish the blaze, leaving a burned, broken shell of a house in the place of what was once a comfortable home and business location for the Sulcoskis, as well as tying up traffic on Route 26 for most of Monday morning.

State Fire Marshal investigators said they had determined that the fire originated in a second-floor bedroom, but the cause was still under investigation. Damage was estimated at $200,000.

Meanwhile, Sulcoski has already begun to pick up the pieces of a shattered life, with a lot of help from friends, family, acquaintances who patronized the produce stand and even strangers who have sought to check on her safety and do what they can to help.

Liz Raskauskas, Sulcoski’s close friend, said Monday that Sulcoski had already made arrangements to stay with her ex-husband and their children, until she can find a more permanent living arrangement. Raskauskas said, “She’s doing OK right now.”

“She’s getting some assistance from the Red Cross,” Raskauskas added. But all of Sulcoski’s possessions were reduced to ashes by the fire or destroyed in the efforts to control the blaze. Blackened curtains rustled in the summer breeze early this week, unveiling the total destruction within. A soot-stained stuffed animal peeked out of a second-story window, below a roof open to the sky.

With the devastation wrought on Sulcoski’s life by the fire, friends decided to move forward on a positive foot, according to Raskauskas.

“We decided to open up the produce stand and raise some money, and took donations,” she said. Indeed, those driving, walking or bicycling past the location on Monday and Tuesday were greeted by Sulcoski’s friends and employees, who gladly took whatever buyers were willing to give for the remaining produce and plants at the produce stand.

Umbrellas that formerly sheltered the produce from the summer sun were tipped toward the street and became impromptu signage telling the world, “Everyone is OK & the dog,” as well as making it known that the produce stand was still open and donations were being taken to help Sulcoski get back on her feet.

In addition, Raskauskas helped plan an impromptu fund-raiser at the Back Street Café on Thursday, Aug. 3, to start around 6 p.m., with donations to be taken and a 50/50 raffle to be held to benefit Sulcoski.

Raskauskas said a future benefit was already being planned, with details to be announced.

A sign up at the location on Monday also suggested those seeking to help Sulcoski contact Ocean View town hall, which had agreed to take some donations of clothing and other items for the mother and daughter.

“People have already started to get them a little bit of clothing,” Raskauskas said Monday. “But they’re really going to be starting from scratch.”

Sulcoski is going to need to find permanent housing, as well as a job, according to Raskauskas.

“The produce stand is done after today,” Raskauskas said, though friends continued to sell the remaining plants and take donations through mid-week. “She had already planned on closing the business after Labor Day,” she added. “But now that’s ending a little sooner. She will need to find employment.”

Already the community has begun to rally to Sulcoski’s aid.

“A lot of people have offered to give what they can…” Raskauskas said, noting that the ACTS thrift store near Dagsboro had offered Sulcoski whatever items she wanted from the store, free of charge.

In addition to the benefit Thursday night at the Back Street Café, plans as of Wednesday included a fund-raiser at Scotty’s Bayside Tavern on Route 54.

Scotty’s co-owner Alex Laird said, “We’re going to get fliers out and tell as many people as we can. We want to get as many folks in as we can and help this young lady out.”

The Wednesday, Aug. 9, benefit is set to run from 7 p.m. “through whenever the last person wants to leave,” Laird said. In addition to offering drinks, Laird confirmed that 93.5-FM’s Rex will be doing a radio remote from the fund-raiser that night.

“Folks will bring food, and I’ll be ordering up some pizzas,” Laird said, adding to the menu for the event. “It’s Mexican night,” he noted of the tavern’s traditional Wednesday-night theme, “and we’ll have special prices on margaritas and Mexican beer to go along with that.”

There’s also another 50/50 raffle planned for the Scotty’s fund-raiser. And Rent Equip on Route 26 has also set up a donation drive for Sulcoski, taking donations at their location, as well as establishing an account for the funds raised and to which the public to make direct donations.

The fund for Sulcoski was established Wednesday at Taylor Bank’s Ocean View branch. Donations for the fund can be taken to the branch or mailed to Taylor Bank, Ocean View branch, Jennie Sulcoski Fire Fund, 50 Atlantic Ave., Ocean View, DE 19970.

The efforts, according to Raskauskas, indicate not only the connection Sulcoski has made with her neighbors and customers but the munificence of the community as a whole.

“People have been very generous,” Raskauskas said of all of the various efforts to help Sulcoski get back on her feet. “It’s absolutely amazing how people have come together. This is a really great community.”