Michael Roberson, the brother of Robert Thomas who died in the Jay Street fire last year, is organizing a memorial service for victims of the fire next month.
Roberson is planning the event on March 6 — the one-year anniversary of the massive fire at 100-104 Jay St. that claimed the lives of Thomas, 31, as well as Harry Simpson, 59; Berenices Suarez, 33; and Jermaine Allen, 37.
Roberson, 30, said he is organizing the event, which he named “The Rising,” in an effort to bring the community together to honor the lives of the deceased and other victims of the fire.
“It’s not over for a lot of people, at least for the people who have been affected,” he said. “We want to inspire the community to come together and show their support. These people need to be honored and respected.”
Roberson said the loss of his brother tore his family apart and is still very difficult to deal with. He said he continues to be strong for his 5-year-old son.
“My family we’re not … we kind of fell apart,” he said. “Things took a bad turn. We all took what happened differently. Emotionally, I still go through a lot. It’s like I’m stuck in time. It’s highly difficult and very depressing.”
Thomas was the last victim to be identified by officials after the blaze. Roberson had put up missing person posters in downtown Schenectady at the time.
Roberson and his brother grew up together in Connecticut in foster care. Thomas served in the military and was honorably discharged from the Army National Guard in 2014.
The memorial service will be held from 2 to 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 6 in front of Schenectady City Hall across from the fire site, which is now a vacant lot. The service will be for everyone affected by the tragedy, Roberson said.
During the early morning hours of March 6 of last year, a fire accidently started in Simpson’s apartment on the fourth floor of 104 Jay St. The fire quickly spread to neighboring 100-102 Jay St. Four people died, seven were hospitalized and 60 or more displaced. The buildings have since been demolished.
“It’s a bad situation for a lot of individuals and one of those things that is starting to fade away,” Roberson said.
Roberson is also starting his own company, called “1220 art studio gallery,” to honor Thomas. Roberson explained that his brother, born on Dec. 20, was an aspiring artist.
Roberson, who studied theater in college, said the company would work to provide a platform and support for local artists, something he said Thomas was lacking.
“My brother was an artist,” he said. “He drew and he was into hip-hop and he was very talented at both. I always felt he didn’t have support in life to nurture those gifts. He could have been the next big thing out there.”
Roberson said the company isn’t just for his brother but for the whole community.
“My goal is to help local artists and to give them a chance to do something and give back to the community,” he said. “There isn’t a lot of funding for the arts in schools. Art is an expression of life. I plan to host a raffle for start-up costs and see if we can get additional support through donations.”
Although the fire was ruled accidental, Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney convened a grand jury to investigate the incident further. The investigation is still ongoing.
As part of the investigation, Carney’s office subpoenaed city code enforcement documents for 100-102 and 104 Jay St. The building at 104 Jay was inspected the day before the fire.
The documents have since been sealed. The city denied the Daily Gazette’s Freedom of Information Law request for the records. City officials have declined comment citing an ongoing investigation.
Roberson said there are still questions about the fire that he would like answered.
Roberson’s mother, Ethel Roberson, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the property owner and manager of the building in August. She also filed a notice of claim against the city. The families of Allen and Suarez also filed lawsuits and claims.
“There is a lot of confusion and a lot of things that haven’t been answered about the fire,” Roberson said. “There’s a lot that’s unsaid. There is still tension.”