Union City held a public, all-day and night wake on July 24 for five children who perished in a fire in their 25th Street home last month.
The service was held from 12 p.m. on July 24 through 9 a.m. July 25. The bodies of siblings Jason Gonzalez, 2, Shamira Lopez, 4, Christian Jose Mendez, 7, and Jose Felipa Tejada, 13, along with cousin Mayli Wood, 5, lay in open white caskets inside St. Anthony of Padua Church, surrounded by music, pictures, and flowers.
The fire occurred around 9 a.m. on Friday, July 13 at 416 25th St. Officials are still investigating the cause, as of press time, but the owner of the residence has been hit with several violations from the city.
The children were asleep on the top floor at the time of the blaze, according to published reports. Their mother had just left the home briefly for an errand, an outlet said. An adult family member, reportedly the siblings’ older brother, was with the children.
He and another woman who lived on the first floor sustained injuries in the fire, but were reported in stable condition, NJ.com said.
EMS services took eight firefighters to local hospitals for minor injuries, according to the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office.
Christian, Jason, and Mayli died that Friday, and Jose and Shamira died in the hospital days later.
The building where the fire happened has been demolished. People as far away as Kentucky have contributed to a Gofundme account for the funeral, according to city spokeswoman Erin Knoedler. The page had raised $50,195 of its $55,000 goal by press time. The city has also received an additional $20,000 in assistance checks, Knoedler said.
Friends and family at the wake were heartbroken.
“I have no words, because I know the family,” said Carmen Argueta, a Union City resident whose husband was close to the family. “I’m very, very hurt. I couldn’t even approach where they were. I didn’t even have the guts to do it.”
Another woman who accompanied Argueta didn’t give her name, but said, “It’s very sad; it’s horrible.”
Knoedler said. “The family lost everything. They didn’t even have clothing.”
Those who want to donate to the family can do so through the GoFundMe, (at https://www.gofundme.com/union-city-fire-victims-fund) or by sending checks or money orders made payable to Union City Fire Victims’ Fund, City of Union City, Office of Mayor Brian P. Stack, 3715 Palisade Ave., 3rd Floor, Union City, N. J. 07087.
Ongoing investigation, citations
Arson investigators have determined that the fire originated on the first floor of the three-story residence.
The city’s Fire Prevention Bureau has issued at least 10 code violations against the landlord, including one for non-conforming use and another for failure to maintain fire alarms in the building’s common areas. More citations are likely forthcoming, Knoedler said.
“It’s zoned as a one commercial [unit] on the bottom, and two residential, and we knew that there were more than that [residential units] in the building,” Knoedler said. She said an air conditioner was blocking a fire escape.
The landlord has also received at least $60,000 in fines, the spokeswoman said.
“I have never seen so many caskets at the same time.” – Joycey Christian.
“I have never seen so many caskets at the same time,” said Joycey Christian, a local resident who attended the wake with her husband. She did not know the family, but said, “We join with the family in their sadness.”
Parks and Public Property Commissioner Celin Valdivia came to show his respects. “For me, it was very hard to see little kids in an open casket,” he said, after emerging from the church. “I have no words to say to the parents – just have a lot of faith in God. I’m a grandfather myself. I have four grandchildren. I have three adult children. I can’t even imagine that.”
Mayor Brian Stack and Gov. Phil Murphy briefly dropped by for the service. Neither offered comments to press.
Stack has met with Superintendent of Schools Silvia Abbato to discuss more fire safety education in Union City schools. The North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue will be meeting with residents about fire safety as well, Knoedler said. The city has ordered 5,000 smoke and 5,000 carbon monoxide detectors to be given free of charge to residents.
Those who need them must go to town hall, 3715 Palisade Ave., and provide proof of residency.
The fire comes a few months after the one-year anniversary of a fire that fully engulfed a building at 1404 Summit Ave., in March 2017, in which a 1-year-old boy died.
Resident Eddie Gonzalez Sr. pleaded guilty to reckless manslaughter in starting the fire, after apparently flicking lit matches onto a relative as he slept on a couch. He received five years in prison. A friend, Edwin Diaz, also plead guilty to reckless manslaughter for also lighting a match and igniting a piece of paper on the relative. He received three years in prison in March.
The boy’s baby sister was carried to safety.
Eight residential buildings including 20 apartments were damaged in the blaze. Sts. Joseph and Michael Church, 1413 Central Ave., also sustained massive damage from that fire.
Old homes in Union City and nearby towns are especially vulnerable to fires because of the way they were built. Many of them are touching each other and sometimes share a common airway known as a “cockloft.” This helps flames spread.
Hannington Dia can be reached at email@example.com