Marcella and Ambroz Ferrena had had a rough couple of years. Less than three years ago, Ambroz, owner of New Europa, the lounge at European Village, was diagnosed with cancer. He made it through that. In July, his mother, for whom he’d long cared at his house, died. The following month Marcella’s father, who’d taken the family back to Sicily for a visit, died of an aneurysm.
Sunday evening, Ambroz was sitting down to take care of Valentine’s Day work for the restaurant when he and Marcella smelled smoke. He recalled the smell resembling that of a self-cleaning oven and asked Marcella if she happened to have been cleaning the oven. She said no. He scoured the house, the kitchen especially, Nothing. He sat back down at the computer. Marcella went into the shower. But she could still smell the smoke even from the shower, more powerfully so by then. Ambroz checked every one of the four bedrooms in the 2,500-square-foot house again, and this time went into the garage.
“When I came in here, right in this corner, I saw a flame, like a pretty intense flame,” Ambroz said. It was in one of the corners at the entrance to the garage, with a bookshelf right in front of the electrical outlet the fire marshal would later determine to have been the origin of the blaze—a timing mechanism for an outside porch light had been plugged in there for many years—and a metal handcart in front of that. “So I pulled the handcart and the handcart was so hot that I realized this is much worse than it is,” Ambroz said.
His life-saving instincts kicked in, to get his wife out of the house and, for fear that her car, which was in the garage, would explode from the flames, pull the car out (something the fire marshal would later tell him he shouldn’t have done, for his own safety.) “When I came out back in the garage the environment was like Dante’s Inferno. It was already taking off,” he said.
By the time the Ferrenas were outside, in less than a minute after detecting the flames in the garage’s corner, the fire had started traveling through the roof, which acts like a flame’s pipeline, spreading to the rest of the house.
In the few minutes that it took the fire department to get there, the house at 54 Colonial Court, at the edge of one of Palm Coast’s canals in the Palm Harbor area, was fully engulfed, the flames leaping high enough that first-responders arriving from Palm Harbor could see them above the tree line. And Marcella, 56, and Ambroz, 58, stood in their cul de sac, in front of the house they’d lived in for 14 years, and watched it burn. Firefighters worked to contain the blaze as several houses, including that of Ambroz’s sister next door, Alida Ferrena, were evacuated.
The house would be a total loss: furniture, an imported German dining room set, books, art work, Marcella’s bookkeeping business’ records, the computer Ambroz was using at the opposite end of the house, in the master bedroom: all charred. A grand piano in the living room may or may not have survived despite its protective cover: heat and water may have damaged it beyond repair.
This morning Marcella and Ambroz, wearing work boots and the blue t-shirts from years ago when they supported Melissa Moore-Stens’s campaign for county judge, were sifting through whatever they could salvage from what had become a boggy marsh of mangled or molten memories gnarled with shards of roof tiles in every room. Not much could be salvaged, even inside display cases that had preserved a few figurines, sculptures, a few bottles of choice-shelf liquor. A New York University cap sat near a wall on the living room floor’s ashen mound of debris, one of hundreds of emblematic memories now defaced, this one from the Ferrenas’ sons’ 2006 graduation from that school, where he still works in a biology lab.
And yet Ambroz somehow was not in dire spirits. Adrenaline was still coursing through him—he hadn’t slept in 48 hours, having come home from Europa at 4 a.m. Sunday morning—and he said he and his wife would be emotionally overcome in turn, but it was necessary to be strong just now. He wanted to be strong for Marcella. His sister said he was putting up a front. He spoke at a remove as if as if the spectator to his own misfortune. “It’s like, in one second, life just completely went from being a nice, lazy, happy afternoon—like the Moody Blues song,” he said, then sang the opening lines, “Lazy day, Sunday afternoon…”
“Life just kind of went past me in a flash,” he said, satisfied enough that he’d gotten his wife out. But he is after all overcome on a couple of occasions, going over a series of struggles over the past years, remembering his mother and her late-years’ struggles, speaking in terms that re-evaluate one’s life and its future directions, calling the fire “the last straw.”
He sifts. He picks up an item, puts it down, picks up another.
“It’s unbelievable. Little mementos. Who cares, you know?” he said, going through a glass case with several objects that had survived, among them a ceramic of the white bull from Greek mythology, the bull representing Zeus, who’d changed himself into a bull to kidnap Europa, after whom Ambroz named his restaurant. An artist friend of his had made the bull and covered it with humorous references, including a liking of one of the Belushi brothers. The humor isn’t misplaced, or even errant. It’s a visual throw-away line in a house that had, like its owner, been rich in humor and soaked, before the firemen’s water, in cultural and literary allusions from just about every time zone.
One moment Ambroz describes himself as if in the grips of a surreal “euphoria” from the shock of the night’s events, the adrenaline, the outpouring of concern, and in the same breath he anticipates the soon-to-be return of a reality when attention diminishes and he and his wife are left to their own “private hell,” as he put it. This wouldn’t be their first struggle, and may turn out to be only their latest triumph, hard as it was to detect through this morning’s wreckage. But there were hints of it in Ambroz’s voice.
He pointed to the Biedermeier dining room set, what had been his and his wife’s prized possessions. “Right now it’s completely ruined,” Ambroz said, “and I say, you know what? Good riddance. If it’s gone, we should really change our life. Just yesterday morning we were saying, you know, we have so much stuff. What do we do with all this? It’s almost like some higher power heard us.”