NEW YORK: Emmanuel Mensah was a handsome, strongly built young man in his late 20s who immigrated to the Bronx from Ghana five years ago. He joined the Army National Guard but returned to his apartment on Prospect Avenue in December, after graduating from boot camp with the rank of private first class.
And on Thursday night, he lost his life trying to save people from his furiously burning apartment building, one of 12 people to die in the blaze.
“He brought four people out,” said his uncle, Twum Bredu, who lives next door. “When he went to bring a fifth person out, the fire caught up with him.”
Mensah was found in Apartment 15, his uncle said, but he lived in Apartment 11, with a friend of his father’s who was at home with his wife and four children.
Mensah, a decorated soldier who had been awarded a medal for marksmanship and was planning to join military police, got that family to safety, then pulled out four more people, his uncle said, before returning to the building. He never emerged; authorities said he died of smoke inhalation.
The fire cut a deadly path through the building, with four children among the victims.
Maria Batiz was at home with her eight-month-old granddaughter when the fire swept up the stairs. Maris Orellana, who works at the Bronx Zoo Deli down the street, said Batiz was a regular customer and that this was her first grandchild.
On a GoFundMe page asking for support, Batiz’s daughter, Christine Batiz, said that while she was at work her mother watched the girl, a tiny child with big brown eyes. On Thursday night, she frantically called her daughter.
“She told me there was a fire in the building and she was trapped,” Christine Batiz wrote. “I never heard from her again. Later on, at around 1am, I heard the news I never thought I would hear. I lost my angel baby and my best friend, my mother. The lady who birthed and would do anything for me is gone. I lost everything in a matter of minutes.”
Around the Belmont neighbourhood on Friday, the loss of four members of one family, the Stewarts, carried a heavy resonance. In all, 13 family members — cousins, uncles, aunts — all lived in the building. They had moved to New York City from Jamaica and decided to stay close.
On Friday morning, Ambrozia Stewart stood on the corner of East 187th Street and Prospect Avenue, weeping into the frigid air. She had lost her youngest daughter, Karen Stewart-Francis, 37, and three granddaughters: Kylie Francis, two, and Kelly Francis, seven; and Shawntay Young, 19, their cousin.
“I don’t know what to do and I don’t know how to feel. I need somebody to tell me what to feel,” Stewart said. “Where do I go from here? Four at one time — what do I do?”
Maria Rivera, 37, who lives in the building next door, said the Stewarts were familiar faces and that their generosity extended beyond their own relatives. “They were always together,” she said. When the weather was nice, they would host barbecues and invite neighbours to join them. “Come, you want to eat?” was their refrain.
Shevan Stewart, 44, another of Ambrozia’s daughters, said that her mother immigrated to the United States in the late 1980s, and that 19 of her family members followed her in 2004.
The family had just returned from visiting Jamaica last week.
Stewart-Francis, her husband, Holt Francis, and their two children had moved to their fifth-floor apartment from Manhattan about a year ago. Holt Francis was in a coma at Jacobi Medical Center on Friday because of injuries he suffered in the fire.
Young, another member of the Stewart family, had lived in a basement apartment with her mother and stepfather.
Kenyon George, 19, said she was his girlfriend of seven months and they were constantly in contact, talking over FaceTime, text and Snapchat, even when she was in Jamaica visiting family. He last saw her two days ago, he said. Young had “a little attitude,” George recalled with a laugh, tears cutting across his cheeks, but it was impossible for him to stay angry with her for long. “It’s that smile, you know,” he said.
He said that he loved to cook for her, and she would sometimes ask him to teach her how. She graduated from Frederick Douglass Academy III high school in the Bronx, he said, and until recently had worked at a C-Town supermarket.
She was a mother figure to George’s baby boy, and they would often fall asleep together. Once, he recalled, he went upstairs in his home to cook as she and his son watched TV. “I came back down, they were asleep, ‘Law and Order’ still playing,” he said.
Now, he wondered — “What am I supposed to tell my son?”
Shevan Stewart, the family chef, said her relatives loved to gather for a meal in her first-floor apartment, where they would tell stories about her 102-year-old grandmother back home.
“I’m always cooking, and they’re always eating,” Shevan said.
On Thursday night, Shevan was cooking curry chicken and rice for herself when Young poked her head in to ask what Shevan was making. The dish was her favourite.
“She said, ‘I’m gonna come back. I’m gonna go to the fifth floor to visit Auntie Karen,’” Shevan said.
“I said, ‘Don’t stay long,’” Shevan recalled. “She said, ‘I’m gonna come back.’”
“But she didn’t come back,” Shevan added, her voice breaking. “She didn’t come back.”
The names of the five other victims have not yet been released. JosE Miguel Agrelo, who lives nearby, said he watched a firefighter carry an unconscious child from the building, a thin boy he had often seen playing in the streets. The child was shirtless, wearing just a pair of shorts in the biting cold. “He was gone,” Agrelo said.