Bruce Marx remembers the first ride for Sa’fyre Terry.
As the little arson victim — then still just 5 years old — continued her fight to survive and heal at Westchester Medical Center’s Burn Unit, Marx and his fellow bikers took to the road to support her and gather funds for her recovery.
A year later, at another ride, Sa’fyre took to the road with them.
“She actually rode in the side car the whole run,” Marx recalled. “That was one happy little girl that day, let me tell you.”
From the earliest stages of Sa’fyre’s recovery, her story of survival touched the hearts of many.
The world learned Sa’fyre’s story last week in an online explosion of giving, as simple request for Christmas cards to brighten a little girl’s holiday turned into a worldwide project of love.
Truckloads of cards and packages are now en route to Sa’fyre and her family. The online community opened its collective wallets and purses, as well, sending $5, $15, $100 at a time — donations that have totalled more than $300,000.
The entire expression of cheer can be traced directly to smaller, local expressions of love.
In the 21⁄2 years since Sa’fyre’s story began, an unlikely amalgam of bikers, corrections officers, friends and strangers reached out to support the little girl and her Rotterdam family as they moved from the depths of despair to the heights of hope.
All those smaller, local expressions of love set the stage for another biker from another club to write up a Christmas card challenge to the world.
“It’s like a flower,” the gruff-looking Marx offered. “It starts as a bud and then it blooms open and that’s exactly what happened.”
The flower that the world sees now has its roots in the darkest of mornings.
Just after 4 a.m. May 2, 2013, Schenectady firefighters arrived at the burning 438 Hulett St. Still inside: A father and his four children.
Through the smoke and past the flames firefighters found them. David Terry, his daughter Layah, 3, and sons Michael, 2, and Donavan Duell, 11 months, all were lost.
But, shielded in her father’s arms, city firefighters found Sa’fyre.
They rushed Sa’fyre to a helicopter that took her nearly 150 miles south to Westchester Medical Center and an uncertain path ahead.
Into the family void stepped Sa’fyre’s aunt and uncle, Liz and Michael Dolder.
The Dolders had already taken in one of David Terry’s daughters, Layah. A planned overnight stay with her father ended with the arsonist taking the 3-year-old’s life, too.
“Liz and Mike are very unassuming people,” foundation liaison-turned-family friend Ann Murphy said of the Dolders Friday, “very simple in the most positive way.
“They live. They work. They love their family. They love each other.”
Murphy got to know the Dolders beginning weeks after the fire, through Murphy’s work with the Albany County Correctional Facility Childrens’ Benefit Foundation. Murphy is an inmate service specialist at the jail.
The foundation began nearly a decade ago from another child family tragedy. It’s supported by corrections officers, employees and others, and offers financial assistance to seriously ill childrens’ families.
Murphy recalled going with foundation president John Smith to first meet with the Dolders weeks after the fire.
Murphy said the Dolders first were reluctant to identify their needs. After spending some time with the family, Murphy realized a pressing need: Transportation.
Sa’fyre’s family needed to worry about Sa’fyre, not about getting to Westchester. Initial offers of cash cards to cover expenses turned into rental cars on demand and later hotel rooms when Sa’fyre’s care moved to Boston.
“By giving them the car — as simple as that — she was able to be there with Sa’fyre,” Murphy recalled. “Sa’fyre, who wasn’t expected to live, lived. Survived. Started really thriving and Liz started coming alive again.”
Murphy and the foundation have continued to support the Dolders in other ways, including helping find them experts to deal with the influx of donations.
Dolder has said that she wanted to step back and speak with experts to ensure everything with the influx is done properly. Murphy recalled Dolder doing everything properly with the foundation’s early help, consistently providing all the documentation asked of her.
Smith, a 30-year corrections officer, couldn’t help but get emotional Friday at the worldwide response to Sa’fyre’s story.
“Now they know how difficult a situation this has been for them,” Smith said, his voice wavering. “It has been very, very difficult and, if there’s ever a family that deserves something like this, this is it.”
Starting the recovery
Passed from the Schenectady Fire Department to the care of Westchester Medical Center, Sa’fyre started her recovery.
Schenectady Fire Chief Ray Senecal remembers that morning. Then a platoon commander, Senecal helped lead the response with then-Chief Michael DellaRocco.
If there ever could be a bright spot to that morning of so much loss, Senecal said, Sa’fyre was it. He called it a great feeling seeing Sa’fyre come so far and gain the world’s attention.
“To see all of this good-heartedness and health coming to her,” Senecal said of his department’s reaction to the outpouring, “that’s very comforting to them.”
At Westchester Medical Center, Sa’fyre made slow progress at first. It took her a month to breathe on her own. By July, she could sit up and receive a hug.
On her September birthday, Westchester nurses, doctors, therapists and organizations came trough with balloons and toys. Sa’fyre blew kisses and played princess.
Sa’fyre finally came home in February 2014, her care then switched to Boston’s Shriners Hospital. She’s made steady progress through more surgeries. She will continue to face surgeries through young adulthood.
Shriners Hospital for Children in Boston is one of the top child burn treatment hospitals in the world and sees upwards of 6,000 children annually with burns care and other specialities. Insurance is accepted, but care is otherwise provided free of charge through a Shriners endowment.
Through everything, Sa’fyre’s spirits have remained high, according to Dr. Philip Chang, a member of Sa’fyre’s Shriners treatment team.
“I think every nurse and doctor that’s taken care of Sa’fyre here at our hospital always remarks on just how spirited she is. She’s very spunky. She clearly communicates what she likes and doesn’t like. She’s a delight to be around.”
She can also be a little saucy at times, Chang said, but that’s part of her charm.
“She had a pretty serious injury,” Chang said, “but she refuses to be limited by those injuries.”
Friends new and old
As doctors and nurses provided for Sa’fyre’s physical well-being, friends new and old laid the groundwork that led to the unexpected explosion of giving that was to come.
Christine DelGallo grew up with Dolder but later lost touch. She later reconnected — long after the fire — through Facebook.
The two renewed their friendship and DelGallo got to know Sa’fyre.
“She’s just as sweet as can be,” DelGallo, owner of Jay Street’s Majestic Salon, said as she colored a client’s hair Friday. “I bought her a balloon with presents for her birthday. She doesn’t ask for anything. Nothing. She is just so grateful for everything.”
DelGallo found herself asking the questions. As the Dolder family hit financial hardships earlier this year when Michael Dolder first got hurt and later lost his job, DelGallo asked Liz Dolder if she could open an online fund-raising account for Sa’fyre. Dolder agreed.
A religious woman, DelGallo lit candles in hopes that the fund would do well. Pinned to the top of Sa’fyre’s Facebook page, donations totalled $5,000 to $6,000 the first few months. It was just enough to hold the Dolders over until Michael got a new job.
The biker community has long backed Sa’fyre. From that first 2013 ride, support continued. Marx’s Schenectady-based riding club, originally the Mystic Warriors and now called the Crystal Snakes, continued support. The Moose Riders, the Steel Riders, the firefighter-based Smoke and Iron club gave of their time and energy, as did the Norlanders and others.
At a ride three months ago, Dolder snapped a picture of Norlanders member Kevin Clark next to a smiling, Skittles-holding Sa’fyre.
Clark, of Greenfield, first met the family at that ride and he kept in touch. He also followed Sa’fyre’s Facebook page, Safyre Schenectady’s Super Survivor.
Then, on Dec. 3, Dolder posted a simple picture of Sa’fyre holding the family’s first Christmas card. The girl stood next to a small card tree.
After consulting Dolder, Clark took that picture of Sa’fyre and the Christmas card and added a challenge.
“I wonder how many of my friends would take the time to write and send Sa’fyre a Merry Christmas card that she can hang on her card tree,“ Clark typed around noon on Dec. 4.
Clark then hit “post” and that bud that took so long to build, burst open to the world.