My wonderful diner waitress and her family are among some 120 people left homeless by the fast-moving New Year’s Eve fire that destroyed a 36-unit condominium building at Main and Charles streets in Bridgeport, right next to the New Colony II Diner. Thankfully, she was able to get her family out safely and to the welcoming folks at the diner, who spent hours serving hot chocolate to children and coffee or tea to their parents.

I only connected the dots the following Monday when I pulled into the diner parking lot and was shocked by the ghoulish-looking, burned-out hulk of what was once a place where people lived. How stupid of me, I reflected, that I hadn’t connected the dots last week and realized exactly where this fire had been. Shame on me.

That Monday, Dena, the wonderful co-owner of the diner greeted me at the door with news about the waitress and, with her voice choking, told me about how the young woman had arrived with her children barely dressed and cold at the diner’s door. Others came in with their children as well, trying to process the horror story they’d just escaped and slowly accepting the realization that just after the most joyous season of the year, they’d lost everything.

Dena’s maternal instincts kicked in immediately and she provided refreshments for hours until the Fire Department asked the diner owners to shut down because of smoke from next door. She had called in family and everyone pitched in. I felt so badly that I hadn’t realized what happened and was at work all day. I would have gladly helped.

The memory of that burned-out building will haunt me for a long time. According to reports that I read, the two-alarm fire apparently started with a burning car in the lower-level parking area. The fire quickly spread to other cars and fueled the flames.

All of the residents, thanks to quick-thinking neighbors, got out safely. Many, according to the Connecticut Post, said they were able to get cats and dogs out, but other pets were trapped. That really broke my heart, especially when I saw that some pet owners who were interviewed escaped with only one of two cats.

Thankfully, the waitress and her family are staying with her parents, who live in the area. But her real challenges are ahead as she tries with her boyfriend to start over again at the worst time of the year. Most of the other residents barely got out with the shirts on their backs, but the good news is that all of the fire victims have found or have been placed in temporary housing.

According to the Post, “Still the disaster tugged at the heartstrings of even the firefighters, hardened to the sight of the displaced standing curbside. This time, there were throngs of people on the street who were uncertain as to what they would do next.

“Many were weeping, their Christmas presents and their children’s toys but a memory now, and their shoes, boots and winter clothes gone.”

Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim actually bundled several children in his car and took them to Bass Pro Shops to buy toys and clothing.

I have previously written about the emotional, as well as personal damage and loss a fire can cause. This fire, however, where I actually knew one of the victims, hit me very hard.

Reports I heard earlier in the week indicated that the building would likely be torn down. But visualizing the pain of residents, who lost their homes, I’m sure they won’t be able to easily handle a pile of burned rubble, knowing that somewhere in it may be a beloved pet’s remains or years of memories from photographs or albums, probably burned or drenched from fire hoses. It seems even more painful that residents won’t be able to go through the building to find anything they hold dear.

I also learned Monday that the outpouring for the fire victims from across Fairfield County has been so enormous that places like the Bridgeport Rescue Mission were almost overloaded with clothing, coats and toys. But my wife and I intend to offer some kind of donation and perhaps something personal to my waitress whose life has turned upside down.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at