Schenectady County

Arson survivor Safyre Terry thanks firefighters personally

Safyre Terry arrived at the Veeder Avenue firehouse in Schenectady on Friday in a pink dress, riding
Schenectady Firefighter Justin Pantalone gives Sa'fyre Terry a hug during a visit to the Veeder Avenue Fire Station on her 9th birthday Friday, September 2, 2016. Fire Chief Ray Senecal watches at center.
Schenectady Firefighter Justin Pantalone gives Sa'fyre Terry a hug during a visit to the Veeder Avenue Fire Station on her 9th birthday Friday, September 2, 2016. Fire Chief Ray Senecal watches at center.

Safyre Terry arrived at the Veeder Avenue firehouse in Schenectady on Friday in a pink dress, riding a trolley, with more than a dozen firefighters lined up to greet her. She had a simple request for her ninth birthday: to formally say thank you to the men and women responsible for saving her life three years ago.

“I was at that fire that night, as well as many of the men and women here today. This is the platoon that actually had that fire,” said Schenectady Fire Chief Ray Senecal. “So it’s a little extra special to them because these are the true heroes, right here, that saved her life.”

Safyre was 5 years old on May 2, 2013, when a devastating arson fire ripped through her home at 438 Hulett St. Lost in the blaze were her father, David Terry, 32, and her three siblings, Layah, 3, Michael, 2, and Donovan Duell, 11 months.

Safyre was found by firefighters wrapped in her father’s arms, severely burned, but clinging to life. She had burns on three-quarters of her body, and subsequently lost her right hand and a foot. But the amazing thing about Safyre, according to her aunt Liz Dolder, who Safyre calls “mom,” is her resilience.

“It’s amazing, she’s been on an incredible road,” said Dolder. “She’s full of spunk and an outgoing personality. Nothing gets her down.”

At the firehouse on Friday, Safyre went down the line of over a dozen firefighters, hugging each of them and saying, “Thank you for saving me from the fire, I love you.”

That love was given right back to her in the eyes of the firefighters, who wished her a happy birthday and said they love her, too.

“We know what she’s been through so far, and what a long road she still has ahead of her,” said Deputy Fire Chief Kurt Gerfin. “It’s just so nice to see her come down and thank us, when we should be the ones that should be thanking her. Her drive and determination inspires us.”

Gerfin said Safyre often comes up in conversation around the firehouse.

“The building it happened in isn’t really too far from here, it’s right at the top of the hill, there’s that connection to it, it’s our neighborhood,” said Gerfin. “The guys that were on the initial rescue are from this station, most of them are still here.”

Safyre wore a pink dress picked out by Dolder, with a pink rose in the front and a big white ribbon tied at her back. Around her neck was a silver heart pendant with an “S” in the middle. She walks now with the help of a prosthesis, and has another prosthesis on her right arm that forms a hand.

Safyre, perhaps a bit overwhelmed by all the attention, never let Dolder out of her site for long. Speaking to reporters, she said she’s feeling “happy.”

“All the firetrucks and all the firemen are awesome,” she said. “The trolley is awesome and it has a birthday sign with pink balloons. I like pink more than anybody.”

Later, Safyre opened a giant Disney princess-themed card signed by members of the Schenectady Fire Department, along with two T-shirts from the department.

“If it wasn’t for them, she wouldn’t be here today,” said Dolder. “They should celebrate this birthday too, because they didn’t just save her, they touched the world too by saving her. It’s all a chain of events, she inspires people and helps give them a better perspective of their own lives.”

Pete Vroman, retired from the U.S. Marshals Service and former undersheriff for Montgomery County, became close with Safyre and her family about a year ago.

“I’ll never forget, 30 years in law enforcement, and I was very nervous driving over to see her and to meet her. It was a new feeling for me to be that nervous,” said Vroman, with Safyre at his side. “I met her, and immediately she wrapped me right around her little finger. And shortly thereafter she did the same thing to the world.”

Safyre’s story went viral after a family friend extended on social media her wish to receive Christmas cards last year to fill a card tree. The response was overwhelming: 1.7 million pieces of mail, including from the likes of President Barack Obama and the first family, as well as pop stars like Beyoncé and Katy Perry.

Dozens of volunteers, including nearly two dozen state police officers, donated their time to sort through all the mail, which included gift cards and packages.

Senecal said with all of the destruction, death and heartbreak firefighters see on a daily basis, it’s good to have a ray of sunshine every once in awhile.

“This is something that’s positive for us, it’s bright, it makes our day,” said Senecal. “I think a lot of the men and women, they find a great deal of not only pride, but happiness in seeing her, as she brings to people around the world. What an inspiration she’s been.”

For all the well-wishes and community bonding that’s transpired in the wake of the tragedy, there’s one thing Safyre has not yet received: justice. The arson remains unsolved. Authorities said the stairs leading to Terry’s second-floor apartment were doused in an accelerant and set ablaze.

A perplexing investigation followed, with false testimony being given by Safyre’s mom, Jennica Duell, and another man, Duell’s ex-boyfriend, Edward Leon. Both are now serving time after being convicted by federal prosecutors of perjury.

Authorities imprisoned Robert A. Butler, Duell’s boyfriend at the time, based on her testimony, but later withdrew the charges after new evidence emerged and Duell recanted her testimony. Butler served nine months in jail before being released in 2014.

Authorities say they’re still seeking the person who set the fire, and Vroman made a plea Friday to anyone who might have new information.

“This case still cries out for resolution, the family, the community, we all look for closure in this case,” said Vroman. “If anybody does know anything about this, they know what they’ve got to do; you have to come forward and help everyone out.”

Reach Gazette reporter Dan Fitzsimmons at 852-9605, [email protected] or @DanFitzsimmons on Twitter.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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