Funerals Begin for Victims of Bronx Fire That Killed 13

NY Times - January 08, 2018

by ASHLEY SOUTHALL

UFA President Fitzgerald Statement: Deadly Bronx Fire

Iholt Francis had been planning a trip from Jamaica to New York to visit his twin brother to celebrate their 28th birthday. Instead, he arrived last week to take his brother off life support.

Mr. Francis’s twin, Holt Francis, died a week after a fire on Dec. 28 ripped through his apartment building in the Bronx, killing four members of his family and eight other people. The fire was the deadliest in New York City in 27 years. It was started by a 3-year-old boy who was playing with a stove and was fueled by gusty winds.

Funeral services will be held Monday, at the R.G. Ortiz Funeral Home in Manhattan, for Holt Francis; his wife, Karen Stewart-Francis, 37; their daughters, Kylie, 2, and Kelesha, 7; and their cousin, Shawntay Young, 19. Their bodies will be sent to Saint Catherine Parish in Jamaica for burial on Jan. 21.

Several other funerals will be held over the next few weeks. Services were held on Sunday for the youngest victim, 7-month-old Amora Batiz, and her grandmother, Maria Batiz, 65.

Ms. Stewart-Francis, a hotel housekeeper, belonged to a close-knit family from southeast Jamaica. Some relatives had lived in the building, on Prospect Avenue in the Belmont neighborhood, for nearly a decade. Her family occupied five apartments there, and relatives doubled as babysitters, cooks and hairdressers.

Her sister Andrene Paul said the family was still raising money to cover the cost of transporting their bodies to Jamaica for burial. Ms. Paul said it had always been her sister’s wish to be buried there alongside their father.

Ms. Stewart-Francis was the youngest of their parents’ 13 children, and “she and our father were joined at the hip,” Ms. Paul said.

Mr. Francis joined her in the United States in 2016, and the two married that May. They had lived in the apartment building for about a year, Ms. Paul said.

“We always try to stick together because kids are involved,” said Ms. Paul, whose pregnant daughter lived on the third floor with her husband and 10-year-old son. “It works that way, like a community for each other.”

Many of the fire’s victims were working-class immigrants, and relatives have been frustrated in their efforts to plan funerals because they are unfamiliar with the process and have little money to cover expenses.

Six victims of the fire were from the Ashanti region in Ghana. They included a soldier and two children.

Samuel Amaoko, the consulate general of Ghana in New York City, said relatives expressed confusion about what to do at a meeting last week.

They expected the consulate to provide financial assistance, but he could not offer them money. Instead, Mr. Amaoko said, he provided information and sanctioned a GoFundMe page hosted by the National Ghana Parade Council, a business and community alliance that organizes an annual parade. A vigil is planned for Saturday at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, the council president, Catherine Cudjoe, said.

Funeral services for Justice Opodu, 54, and his brother Gabriel Sarkodie, 48, will be on Jan. 20, and then their bodies will be flown to Ghana.

Funeral arrangements have not yet been made for three members of the Donkor family: Solomon Donkor, 49, and his children, Hannah, 17, and William, 12.

Kwabena Mensah has been trying for more than a week to make arrangements for his son, Private Emmanuel Mensah, 28, a soldier with the New York Army National Guard who died pulling people from the fire. But his efforts have been stalled.

Eric Durr, a spokesman for the New York National Guard, said federal regulations prevented the military from taking on Private Mensah’s funeral and burial costs because he was on a reserve soldier and did not die in the line of duty. The military requires soldiers to complete 24 months of active duty to be eligible for burial benefits.

Mr. Mensah’s family can still choose to have military honors presented at his funeral, Mr. Durr said, and the military had assigned a casualty assistance officer to help the family navigate the process.

“I pleaded with them, but they said they cannot do it,” Mr. Mensah said. “This is all new to me. I’m naïve about all of this. I’m totally confused about all of this. It’s heartbreaking.”

Luis Ferré-Sadurní contributed reporting.