Community mourns loss of five family members in Riverhead house fire
Mourners brought candles and flowers, shared stories, prayed and wept in front of the charred Victorian in Riverhead where a family of five died Tuesday night in a house fire.
Outside the three-story home where the family lived on the top floor, a makeshift memorial was set up Thursday, made up of red and white candles with Roman Catholic icons, roses and other floral arrangements placed in memory of the victims: a mother, son, daughter and two nephews.
Investigators think the five were trying to flee before being overwhelmed by the blaze, Suffolk Det. Lt. Kevin Beyrer, head of the Suffolk police department's homicide squad, said Wednesday.
The cause, which is believed to be accidental and noncriminal, has not been disclosed.
There were no signs of smoke alarms in the unit, one of four in the building, which dates to 1905, Beyrer said. Five people who lived in the apartments below escaped.
Asked about whether smoke alarms were in the home, Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar told Newsday Thursday: "The investigation is ongoing and that has not been determined at the moment."
Newsday is withholding the names, as provided by friends of the victims and written on the memorial, pending the official release by the police department. A police email said the names would be released through the county medical examiner’s office.
A call to the medical examiner's office was transferred to County Executive Steve Bellone’s office, whose spokesman, Derek Poppe, didn’t return a message.
Alexander Solorzano, 23, of Flanders, said he knew the family well, having played soccer with several of them. "For me, they were like a second family," he said.
Solorzano recalled he would sometimes sing karaoke with some of the family members at a local downtown restaurant. He last sang with them on Sunday before the fire.
The day of the blaze, Solorzano said he was at the home with his son celebrating the birthday of one of the family members who had just turned 24. Solorzano said he left before the fire happened because his son wanted to leave early.
"I don’t know if I should take that as a sign, but my son wanted to go home, and we left," Solorzano said, adding that the news was shocking and saddening to him.
Santos Chic, a Riverhead resident for the last 14 years, said he was at work when he heard about the fire, and a friend of his hurriedly called him worried that it was his house.
"I couldn’t believe it when I heard the news," Chic said. "I pass by here every day for the last 14 years, and I never imagined it would burn down. I kept thinking about the family and how they must have felt in those moments. So sad."
A memorial is being discussed with other local soccer players on Sunday in Riverhead, Solorzano said.
As she looked on at the remains of the house Thursday, Martina Estrada, of Hampton Bays, said she knew the family and described the mother as someone who worked late nights as a housekeeper, sending money back to family in Guatemala.
"They were good people, very hardworking," Estrada said. "She told me once that she was here because she had to work hard for her family."
Estrada said she heard about the blaze on Wednesday and later heard from friends that the family members had perished in it. The last time Estrada said she had seen the mother was at a party four weeks before the fire.
"She was a good person," Estrada said. "I think we should remember her as a good person, that I hope she’s resting in peace and that the family is suffering for their loss."
Sister Margaret Smyth, of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, said she is working with the family of those killed in Tuesday night’s tragedy. The ministry is coordinating with the Guatemalan consulate and family members arriving in Riverhead to make funeral arrangements and to support relatives.
Smyth said the family was part of the Guatemalan community in Riverhead and the East End who have immigrated to Long Island to join family and work in agriculture in the North Fork farmland.
"I’m learning more about them as I’m meeting the family," Smyth said. "We’re trying to find what can we do. They have no idea what happened.
"When the sister received the news, she was in such shock she had to go to the hospital. They’re just pulling themselves together," Smyth said. "Yesterday was like a rally and in the case of this family, the biggest thing we can do is donate funds. They’re potentially burying five people."
Family members are working with the ministry and the consulate to return the bodies to Guatemala once they are released by authorities. Smyth met with the woman’s brother, who arrived Wednesday from Miami. He said the two nephews had moved from California.
According to Smyth, the Guatemalan community is the largest group of immigrants the Spanish Apostolate works with as immigrants have arrived on Long Island.
"One of the first calls I got was from a Guatemalan man who said, 'They came from my town.' There’s a sense of bonding there.
"When something happens in the community, the community bonds together to do whatever is necessary and help sustain and support anyone," Smyth said.
"People are connected together and know each other from the same churches. They come from the same town and even though they didn’t know each other, they had the experience growing up in the same place."