NYC
04/25/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

After The Fire: The Long Farewell

Produced by HuffPost Eyes&Ears Citizen Journalism Unit in collaboration with The Brooklyn Ink at the Columbia Journalism School.

On Friday evening, Miguel talked about strength.

How important it is for him to remain strong for his young son, Josias. How he needs to be strong for little Maria, still healing from head trauma after the fire that killed their mother, Miguel's wife.

Yes, he must be strong, he said.

But, his eyes gave him away.

They were tired and red, heavier than in days past. Miguel had been crying and as he spoke about what would be the last time he would be with his wife - the funeral - he closed his eyes to pause, as if he needed to convince himself to finish the sentence.

Every day of the week but Thursday and Friday, when there were no services, Miguel has continued to go to the church that has embraced all five Bensonhurst fire victims. He's always been a faithful man, so this period of religious mourning isn't necessarily out of character.

Since the days after the fatal fire, there have been physical changes to Miguel's former home. A tarp covers the apartment windows that were broken and the child safety bars that were bent during rescues. A Dumpster in front of the three-story building is full of burned remains of the structure. Meanwhile, donations to cover transportation of the five bodies back to Guatemala continue to come in, although they have slowed to a trickle.

One thing has remained constant. The Guatemalan community in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn has surrounded all five families since the early morning hours of Jan. 30, when Daniel Ignacio allegedly used a paint thinner to ignite toilet paper inside a baby stroller in the stairwell of 2033 86th Street after a night of drinking. On any given afternoon, the Jovenes Cristianos Church has been a hub for support.

And on Friday evening, that community mourned five of their brothers and sisters, biological or not. About an hour before the service, more than half of the available seats were already filled. A half hour before, all chairs were taken. When Pastor Erick Salgado began to speak about Luisa Chan, Juan Itzep Barrera, Antonio Ixtazuy Mendoza, Valerio Cupil Santos and Agustin Coyoy Lopez, hundreds had arrived and filled almost every free space to stand at the Coney Island Memorial Chapel. Mothers carried children so strollers could be moved and collapsed.

After the fire: Luisa's Funeral from Brooklyn Ink on Vimeo.

Video by Nushin Rashidian

There was certainly some anger in those rooms Friday night, but most are just happy Daniel Ignacio is in custody, Pastor Salgado said.

"That's the only thing that's calming our people," he said.

Daniel Ignacio lived a floor below Miguel, Luisa, Maria and Josias and initially, some believed the fire might have been the result of Mexican and Guatemalan gang tensions. But that was not the case.

At the funeral home, Josias tapped at a portable piano and tugged at his father's arms, just before they entered the room where his mother lay.

Miguel has said he will tell Josias and Maria about their mother and the truth about how she died when they're old enough to understand. They'll learn that Luisa was relentless, that she gave up only when she knew both of her children were out of the building. By then, it was too late. The firefighters couldn't reach Luisa in time. But, the children will know that thousands of New Yorkers thought their mother a hero. Of the five victims, Luisa has been by far the most memorialized.

The caskets were arranged in a semi-circle, with Luisa in the middle. Atop each shiny chest was a white arrangement of flowers and on top of those, two flags - one representing the United States, the other, Guatemala. Photos of each victim, shown with wide smiles, were placed in front.

From the front of the room looking back away from the caskets and into the eyes of family and friends, the scene was similar. Each person seemed to grieve alike, with loud singing, closed eyes and outstretched arms and hands. Much of the service was dedicated to song, sometimes exuberant, sometimes somber.

One family member was missing Friday. Maria is growing stronger every day, her father Miguel said. She will likely recover from the fall onto her head during her rescue, but it's unclear yet whether she will have any lasting negative effects. She's healing at a rehabilitation hospital in Westchester County and is still having difficulty moving her right eye, the side of her face and head that bore the brunt of the fall.

As the service drew to a close, a line formed that spun out into hallways and around corners. Everyone wanted to offer their personal condolences, to greet Miguel, to hug Josias. After 30 minutes with little movement, Miguel's brother stepped in and asked that the well wishes be kept brief. Worn and tired, it was already 9 p.m. and Miguel had to go home to pack for Guatemala, where he hoped to follow his wife home.