Nearly three decades after he immigrated to America from Egypt, Elsayed Elsayed was living a life he and his wife had long imagined. They owned a home in Eagleville, Montgomery County, their kids were in a good school district, and they wanted for little more. Then something they never imagined upended their lives and cost them their home.
Elsayed saw his neighbor, Thomas Razzi, as a kind, generous man. The retired mechanic offered to help his wife cut their backyard grass when he saw her struggling one day. He bought toys for the family’s dog, Rosie, throwing them over the fence that separated their properties.
He never saw Razzi grow angry, or even raise his voice. But on June 10, authorities say, Razzi confronted a township code-enforcement officer with a gun, sparking a standoff with police and a massive fire that took the 66-year-old’s life and left Elsayed’s family and three others homeless.
Now, the victims of that blaze at the Eagle Stream Apartments are spending their days picking up the pieces of their lives, trying to determine their next steps and starting with little more than the clothes on their backs.
“You try to make sure your kids have everything and then it all gets taken away,” Elsayed said during an interview at the Homewood Suites in Audubon, a few miles from where his home once stood. “It’s frightening. It makes you angry. But thank God no one was hurt.”
The investigation into the fire that police say Razzi intentionally set with homemade fireworks remains active, according to Lower Providence Township Police Chief Michael Jackson. The hours-long ordeal started as a visit from a township code-enforcement officer, who arrived at Razzi’s home at midday.
Officials in the township became aware of hoarding conditions inside Razzi’s home about a month earlier, when the township fire marshal visited the home for an inspection following another, smaller fire at a home near Razzi’s, according to Township Manager Donald Delamater.
The fire marshal notified the code-enforcement officer of the issue, and the township then completed its own inspection, giving Razzi one month to clean up.
On June 10, the code-enforcement officer returned, as scheduled, for a follow-up inspection.
During that visit, Razzi became angry, pulled out a gun and threatened the code-enforcement officer, police said. He chased the man away from his property, and shut himself inside when police arrived a short time later.
Officers surrounded Razzi’s house, and waited for him to leave. Instead, smoke started to pour out from the home.
Yusuf, Elsayed’s 6-year-old son, noticed the smoke beginning to waft from Razzi’s backyard. He told his sister, Yasmin, who comforted him, saying it was likely from a barbecue grill.
Then the smoke got thicker. A clatter rang out as the tiles from the roof fell to the ground from the heat of the growing blaze next door.
Armed police officers evacuated Yusuf, Yasmin and their sister, Amirah. They gave similar orders to Cheryl Keller — three houses down — who scooped up her two grandchildren and ran a few yards down the road.
Keller’s home is still standing but severely damaged by both the fire and the water used to extinguish the flames. She, too, is staying at the Homewood Suites, taking occasional trips to her home to retrieve important paperwork and clothing for her grandchildren. It may be months, she said, before she can move back in — if at all.
“I’m worried and I’m just upset about all of this,” Keller said. “Please pray for us.”
The Elsayed family, meanwhile, has no immediate plans. All their possessions were lost, including heirloom family jewelry that Elsayed’s wife, Imane Lofti, brought back from her native Morocco and cash savings they had set aside for their children’s college educations. The couple had switched jobs during the pandemic, abandoning the restaurant positions they had for years out of fear of bringing the virus home, they said.
Instead, they had been working as DoorDash drivers for the last year, leaving early in the morning and returning home late each night. But they quit their jobs after the fire so they could be available to care for their children.
“We’re very upset. [Razzi] destroyed our house. He destroyed our life,” Lofti said. “One day, you have your backyard, you have your home and then you’re sitting in a hotel, and you don’t know what to do.”
Razzi had few visitors, she said, and mostly kept to himself. But the interactions he did have with the Elsayed family were friendly. Elsayed noticed that after Razzi’s dog died about a year ago, his demeanor changed. He seemed “depressed,” Elsayed said, and had recently complained about contracting an unspecified illness from a tick bite.
At one point, Elsayed said, Razzi, told him he was going to die, and that he didn’t care.
“Sometimes I blame myself,” Elsayed said. “I think maybe I could have done something more to help him.”
Efforts to reach Razzi’s relatives were unsuccessful. Jackson, the township police chief, said his department did not have any previous contact with him.
Meanwhile, the people left homeless by the blaze are seeking help in relocating their families and taking steps to rebuild their lives.
“This whole situation, it’s just crazy,” Elsayed said. “Never would I think this would happen.”