Man raises $15K for firefighters after losing his home to devastating fire

John Pequeno lost his home and his dog in a Sept. 10 fire, and immediately started a fundraiser to raise money for the nine volunteer departments that responded


By Christina Tatu
The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

LEHIGH VALLEY, Pa. — Sitting in his backyard, John Pequeno points out just how badly a recent fire damaged his Upper Nazareth Township home.

From the back of the house, all that’s left is a charred black shell, revealing how the upper floors collapsed into the basement. Pequeno lost his beloved Yorkshire terrier, Marshall, and most of his possessions to the Sept. 10 blaze at Rising Sun Court.

Upper Nazareth resident John Pequeno started an online fundraiser after his house burned down on Sept. 10, but instead of raising money for himself, Pequeno wants to raise money for the nine fire departments that responded to the blaze. (April Gamiz/The Morning Call/TNS)
Upper Nazareth resident John Pequeno started an online fundraiser after his house burned down on Sept. 10, but instead of raising money for himself, Pequeno wants to raise money for the nine fire departments that responded to the blaze. (April Gamiz/The Morning Call/TNS)

Almost immediately, friends and family started asking how they could help, but Pequeno, a successful Allentown businessman, said he didn’t need the money.

Instead, he set up a GoFundMe page to raise $15,000 for the nine local fire departments that responded.

“My parents are from Portugal, and they always taught me that you only take help when you need it,” said Pequeno, the founder and president of Ideal Concepts, an insurance technology company with headquarters in Allentown.

The Bethlehem native started the company in 2005, not long after graduating with a master’s degree in computer engineering from Lehigh University. He’s lived at his home on Rising Sun Court for 10 years.

Pequeno recalled how firefighters put their lives on the line while they tried to save his home.

They ran into the house multiple times in an effort to save Marshall, eventually finding him hiding under a couch.

When Pequeno remembered the 1,000-gallon propane tank in the backyard that heats the pool and gas fireplace, a firefighter didn’t hesitate to make sure the valve was off despite nearby flames that stretched 20 feet into the air.

Several days later, when Pequeno wanted to search the rubble for anything that could be salvaged, seven Upper Nazareth Fire Department members showed up to offer their time.

“I never realized most of these smaller- and medium-sized fire departments rely on volunteers,” Pequeno said.

Indeed, all nine departments that will benefit from the fundraiser are comprised of volunteers.

“It’s amazing. I’ve been a volunteer in the fire service for close to 30 years, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen someone after a tragedy stepping up and not accepting the help from the community, but spreading it out to the volunteers who risk their lives and pretty much rely on fundraising to make it work,” said Jeff Fassl, president and assistant chief of the Upper Nazareth Fire Department.

Although Fassl’s department receives some taxpayer dollars, most of their money comes from donations that go toward purchasing fire equipment and even fuel for the trucks, he said.

Upper Nazareth Fire Chief Donald Seiple estimates the department receives about $24,000 a year in donations from a yearly fundraiser.

Upper Nazareth is lucky that it has 40 active members despite an ongoing, statewide shortage of volunteer firefighters and emergency responders.

Jerry Johnson, assistant chief with the Vigilance Hose Company No. 1 in Nazareth also said it’s the first time he encountered such a fundraising effort.

“Mr. Pequeno pretty much lost everything he owned in the fire, including his dog, and his first thought is to raise money for the fire departments around here,” Johnson said.

There were 22 volunteer firefighters from Johnson’s department at the blaze. Johnson estimates between 20% to 25% of his department’s budget comes from donations. Large purchases like firetrucks usually come from municipal money, but smaller equipment is often purchased with donations, he said.

A crew of seven Upper Nazareth volunteer firefighters happened to be at the firehouse when the call came in at 6:26 p.m. that day, Fassl said.

Pequeno was attending a business networking event at OAK Steakhouse in Easton when his cellphone started to ring. At first he ignored it, but after four calls in a row he picked up to his frantic neighbor shouting, “Your house is on fire! It’s gone!”

“I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ “ Pequeno said.

He managed to get home within 15 minutes, but by that point flames were shooting 20 feet into the air from the top of the roof.

“It was surreal,” he said.

Pequeno used his phone to check the home’s security cameras that showed Marshall, a timid dog who would hide at the sound a sizzling frying pan, hiding under the couch. Firefighters tried to resuscitate the dog for 10 minutes, but he succumbed to smoke inhalation.

Pequeno’s other Yorkshire terrier, Baz, survived because he was at the vet having dental work done that day.

Seiple said that the cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Since the fire, Pequeno and his partner, Alisha Leavelle, have been spending all their free time cataloging for insurance purposes the belongings they lost. With winter just a few months away, Pequeno said he likely won’t be able to rebuild until next spring.

In the meantime, he plans to live in a rental property he owns in Allentown. Pequeno said he lost all of his material possessions in the fire, but he’s thankful no one was injured and he has a place to stay.

“This is bad, but someone always has it worse,” Pequeno said.

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©2019 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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