When James and Kristi Lynch were forced to evacuate their apartment at 102 Jay St. as fire engulfed the building next door in the early morning hours of March 6, they had to leave their two cats, Kayden and Jiminy, all ready to go in pet carriers.
James tried three times to return to the apartment for the cats before his building caught fire, each time turned away, sometimes physically, by police.
Inside 104 Jay St., meanwhile, Bretagne Denis and River Sebastian barely escaped with their lives — Denis shattering her heel in a three-story drop onto a second-floor roof, and Sebastian climbing out a window onto a ledge as smoke and flames filled their fifth-floor apartment.
Lazarus, one of their cats, was confirmed dead later, identified by his microchip tag. Their other three cats, Toki, Tiberius and Karma, are still missing.
“When we lose an animal, it is often very easy for people, our loved ones, the humans in our life, to say, ‘Well, just get another cat, get another dog, get another bird,’ ” said bereavement counselor Estelle Giles-Monroe during a memorial service Saturday afternoon for the pets lost in the Jay Street fire. “Well, we can’t do that. We can’t just replace them.”
Photos of Kayden, Jiminy, Toki, Tiberius and Karma hung alongside photos of Jack, Nermal, Onyx, Splat, Zanzil, Adolph and Thumper — cats, dogs and a rabbit — at the Animal Protective Foundation in Glenville as some of those who survived the fire gathered to mourn their loss.
The fire claimed the lives of four people and displaced 60 when it tore through the apartment buildings. No one at the memorial service Saturday minimized the human toll, but they took some time to process, together, the loss of their pets — six confirmed dead and six missing.
“We all saw the fire on Jay Street and saw the tragedy unfold, and as we learned about the tragedy with the animals, it seemed like, as animal people, we needed to support each other,” said Deb Balliet, executive director of the APF. “So we decided to create a day for us to all come together for a collective hug.”
The APF is also establishing an ongoing pet bereavement support group to meet the third Wednesday of every month, starting in April, led by Giles-Monroe.
Many at the ceremony were quietly reflective, talking with each other about their losses. James Lynch was frustrated he’d been forced to abandon his pets.
“You look at those pictures on the wall and just see cats and dogs,” he said. “But those pictures meant more to us than just pets; those were our kids.”
Not long after the fire, Suzanne Burleigh of Schenectady set up the Facebook page, “Jay Street Missing Pets,” to help reconnect pets lost in the fire with their owners. There have been some successes: Sugar, a cat, and Zeus, a dog, were both found alive in a fourth-floor apartment eight days after the blaze. Both were reunited with their owners thanks to the Facebook page.
Sitting along a wall with her cast-bound foot resting on a stool, Denis said she was surprised how much the memorial service helped.
“I was afraid to come,” said the 25-year-old. “I was afraid that it was going to be very overwhelming, because there are still times that I just cry. I miss them so much, and I hope that they got out and that they’re safe somewhere and just waiting to be found and to come back.”
In his prayer and reflection, the Rev. Harold Reed of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Schenectady urged those present to “remember the goodness [your pets] brought to your lives.”
“Our pets love us unconditionally,” he said. “And what a great example of how we should live our lives, as well.”