Fire victims remembered at emotional service
SCHENECTADY On a sunny Saturday morning, the mood inside Bond Funeral Home was gray, with dark clouds of emotion brimming with electricity.
This was not a quiet service.
“I reached over and took him, put him in my arms,” said Maj. Mike Himes, recalling his last Christmas service at the Salvation Army in Schenectady. “And he pulled his head back and looked at my face. And he closed his eyes and put his head right on my shoulder.”
His audience, a sea of young and old with pink noses and red-rimmed eyes, paused their sniffling for a collective “aw” as they remembered Donavan Duell. His mourners filled a dozen rows of chairs and plush couches inside the Schenectady funeral home. They stood against pink walls and leaned over strollers in hallways.
“And I don’t know who was more happy he was there, him or me,” continued Himes.
The moaning began. A woman in the back of the room choked back sobs and bent into herself, trying to keep the guttural, painful moans from escaping.
“Is she crying?” a boy asked his mother, seated next to him a few rows back.
Himes spoke louder, hoping to recapture the room’s attention.
“I’m told that he was 11 months old when he passed away,” he said, “and that a few days ago would have been his first birthday. It’s a sad day for us when a child doesn’t meet his first birthday. It shouldn’t happen like that. But it does happen like that.”
He turned the conversation to Safyre Terry, the 5-year-old who made it out of the raging fire alive, but barely. Here was a ray of hope, a silver lining for the grieving. And they needed a silver lining, for the May 2 fire that consumed 438 Hulett St. delivered only tragedy after tragedy.
For one, it killed nearly an entire family: David Terry, 32, and his children, Layah Terry, 3; Michael Terry, 2; and little Donavan. It destroyed a building that was home to more than a dozen people. It left a 5-year-old girl without her father and siblings, lying in Westchester Medical Center’s burn unit, where she struggles to recover from severe burns.
“I understand that she’s undergone her third surgery,” said Himes, as the audience praised God for the silver lining, “and so we don’t want to forget her this day. We want to remember her and pray for her.”
As flames engulfed their home, Safyre’s father apparently covered the girl with his body, attempting to protect her from the flames and smoke. His efforts may have saved her life, and they certainly weren’t lost on the family and friends he left behind, who remembered the 32-year-old father as a big fan of Superman.
“He was a hero,” boomed a woman when Himes told the crowd he’d only heard good things about the man.
She sat in a row of people all wearing white T-shirts with Superman’s logo emblazoned on the front. “Our hero David,” it read on the front; “God Bless Safyre” on the back, above the names and birth dates of her three dead siblings.
Adding to everyone’s grief was the revelation that the early morning fire was no accident. Robert A. Butler, 27, of Saratoga Springs, has been accused of setting the fire. Police say he entered the front stairwell of the Hulett Street home shortly before 4:30 a.m. and doused it with a liquid accelerant before setting it ablaze. He’s sitting in the Schenectady County jail facing a charge of first-degree arson, though authorities expect to add many more charges, including murder.
Crumpled tissues dotted the funeral home floor Saturday. Few held back tears during the service. Weeping endures for a night, and joy comes in the morning, Himes said softly. Children don’t have to answer to judgment, he said, they’re taken straight to heaven. Their bodies will be made perfect, he continued, and their burns will disappear.
The cries grew softer, but stronger. Their bodies heaved, their sobs came quietly.
“We should thank God every day that he gave us the lives that were here and are now gone,” said Himes. “Why are we quick to say, ‘Why Lord? Why are they gone?’ I wonder how many of us say, ‘Thank you Lord. Thank you that they were here. Thank you that they blessed me. Thank you that I was able to hold little Donavan. Thank you that I was able to play with Michael. Thank you that I was able to laugh with Layah. Thank you that I was able to run with Safyre. Thank you that I was able to laugh and have a great time and enjoy the company of David.’ Have you thanked God for that?”
As the service ended, mourners filed out into the noontime sunshine, gathering in pockets around the chapel door. Some lit cigarettes and sipped Mountain Dew, chatting about errands that needed to be done. Some stood silent and stone-faced. Some gathered in group hugs, comforting the crying.
Some turned their pain and frustration outward, with a group of more than two-dozen mourners chasing off a Sunday Gazette photographer who stood outside, taking pictures of the scene. Their chase ended only after the intervention of some off-duty police officers at a nearby Memorial Day event.
Inside, a few stragglers lingered over pictures of the family. There was baby Donavan, squinting his eyes in a smile, his tiny fist drawn to his mouth.
There was 2-year-old Michael, a cross-eyed cutie with golden blonde hair and a wry smile, in a dimly lit photo as a baby, crying in his mother’s arms at the hospital.
There was Layah, her big brown eyes staring sullenly into the camera, and in another photo, her smiling face covered in mud.
And there was David Terry, caught on film in a father-son moment, enraptured as he snuggled Donavan close.