The families of Robert Thomas and Berenices Suarez stood crying on the steps of Schenectady City Hall on Sunday, one year after their death in a huge fire across Jay Street.
Michael Roberson, the brother of Thomas, organized the memorial service on the one-year anniversary of the fire at 100-104 Jay St. to honor the victims and to bring the community together.
“I’m hurting but I’m learning that pain is not necessarily a bad thing,” Roberson said on a sunny Sunday afternoon as tears ran down his face. “My brother and other people who were lost in the fire were lost but they’re not forgotten. This tragedy is an opportunity to bring people together and to help them realize we are a community and we owe it to each other to come together and show compassion and make a true difference.”
Roberson, who grew up with Thomas in Connecticut in foster care, said Thomas loved music and was an aspiring artist.
Thomas, who was 31, had served in the military and was honorably discharged from the Army National Guard in 2014. After his discharge, Thomas lived in an apartment with his brother on Crane Street before moving to 104 Jay St., where he lived for about four months before the massive fire on March 6.
“He was planning to move,” Roberson said. “It was just a stepping stone. It’s crazy. He deserved better than this. All of those people did.”
When Angie Rosa arrived at the memorial service with her family, she grabbed onto the fence that stands in front of the now-vacant lot where 100-104 Jay St. once stood and cried for the loss of her sister, Berenices Suarez.
Rosa was comforted by Suarez’s mother, Angela Hernandez, and several cousins. Rosa wore a black T-shirt with a photo of Suarez and her boyfriend Jermaine Allen, who also died in the fire.
“Our blood couldn’t be any thicker,” she said. “She was my sister no matter what. It’s been so rough the last year. It’s been tough for my kids.”
Suarez’s family stood on the steps of City Hall alongside Roberson and other victims of the fire. As a DJ played music in the background, they consoled each other and shared memories of their loved ones.
“Berenices and Jay were amazing people,” said Jennifer Pietri, Suarez’s cousin, who wore a white sweatshirt with a photo of Suarez and Allen. “They were happy and loved making others happy. Now they’re in heaven looking upon us giving us this sunny day shining bright like them.”
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Suarez’s mother Angela Hernandez. “But it’s nice to see everyone come out in support of Berenices and other victims.”
Friends described Suarez, 33, and Allen, 37, in an interview last year as “the perfect couple.” Suarez, of 104 Jay St., worked in the Ellis Emergency Department. Allen had a five-year-old son, Jarrell, who is now living with his mother.
The fire started accidentally early the morning of March 6, in the fourth-floor apartment of Harry Simpson, 59, who also died in the blaze. Flames quickly spread to 100-102 Jay St. Seven people were hospitalized and 60 or more displaced.
Ron Crandall, who lived next door from Simpson, barely escaped the building and was treated at Westchester Medical Center’s burn unit for second- and third-degree burns to his face, hands and feet.
Crandall said he decided to stop by the memorial service Sunday to support Roberson.
“Robert’s brother called me and asked me if I could come down,” he said. “He is having a tough time with the loss of his brother.”
Crandall underwent several surgeries downstate and said the healing process has been a “long and drawn-out ordeal.”
“I’m still dealing with the physical aspects of new skin and nerve regrowth,” he said. “Neurologists have taken over monitoring the pain in my feet. It’s constant stabbing pains in the tops and bottoms of my feet all the time, every minute or so.”
Crandall, who now lives in Albany, said the emotional impact of the fire has faded with time but he will never forget the tragedy.
“The memories are easier to handle now,” he said. “But if I let myself wander it kind of catches up with me.”
At Sunday’s event, an urn with Thomas’ remains sat on a table in front of a framed portrait of him in his military uniform.
“My brother is up there with the DJ because he loved music,” Roberson said.
People also inserted flower bouquets into the fence on Jay Street and set candles on the sidewalk.
The Rev. Brad Jones of Christ Church on State Street, which served as a temporary shelter after the fire, prayed for the victims alongside Roberson during the service. Members of the American Red Cross who assisted at the church last year also attended the service.
Another familiar face attended the event with his owner, Staci Lydon. Zeus, a pit bull mix that was rescued by firefighters from a gutted 100-102 Jay St. a week after the fire, was excited to join the crowd.
He jumped on people who petted him and ran back and forth as Lydon used much of her strength to pull on his leash and keep him steady.
Zeus lived with Lydon’s friend, Madeline Arzu, who was considering adopting him at the time. The dog’s recovery in the shell of a building, alive and basically OK so long after the fire, provided a rare bit of happy news after a sad week for the community. Lydon now owns Zeus and said he couldn’t be happier or healthier.
“When I heard he was alive I turned my car around and raced over,” she said. “He had a hot spot on his chest. But it didn’t look like he was there for eight days. He is doing really good now.”
Questions about the fire still remain, and Roberson and others are still desperate for answers. During the service, they shared their anger and frustration with city officials.
U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam; state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam; and City Council members John Mootooveren and John Polimeni stood listening to their concerns.
“I don’t understand the investigation portions of what’s going on,” Roberson said. “I get some things are sensitive. I just don’t understand how a building like that could have been standing in the first place. It makes me question the standards that we accept as a community.”
Former tenants of both buildings charge that the fire alarms and sprinklers were not working at the time of the fire. They also complained of quality-of-life issues, like garbage on the fire escapes and lose wiring in the hallways.
“I visited my brother in his apartment once and remember the bathroom wall being knocked out and just thinking that wasn’t the way for someone to be living,” Roberson said.
The city inspected all 20 units of 104 Jay St. the day before the fire. Code enforcement documents related to the buildings have been sealed since they were subpoenaed last year as part of a grand jury investigation by the Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office. The investigation is still ongoing.
The city of Schenectady faces about a dozen notices of claims, precursors to lawsuits, in connection with the fire. There are also more than a handful of lawsuits against 104 Jay St. owner Ted Gounaris and manager Ideal Property Services.
“When are we going to look at the integrity of the buildings throughout the city? Where is the accountability? People deserve better,” Roberson said. “Losses like these are not something we can sustain as a community and as people. What can I do to make a difference? I’m looking for that answer.”
Reach Gazette reporter Haley Viccaro at 395-3114, [email protected] or @HRViccaro on Twitter.
More from The Daily Gazette: