Grieving community members placed memorial candles, flowers, notes and balloons outside the charred home on East Second Street in Riverhead where five members of a family perished in a late-night fire Nov. 16. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The fire that destroyed a historic residence in the heart of Riverhead Tuesday night claimed the lives of five people who not only shared a home, but were linked by family ties. (See prior story.)

The axis of the family nucleus was Zonia Dinora Rivera, 41, a tireless worker who had arrived from Jeréz Jutiapa, Guatemala 11 years ago with the intention of providing a future for her two children and ensuring she could retire. Those who knew her say she was a woman “to be reckoned with” who did not back down in the face of any obstacle. She started her own cleaning company and earned the affection and respect of her employers in various homes throughout the Hamptons.

“She worked seven days a week, from 4 in the morning to 11 at night,” said a weeping Laura Rivera, Zonia’s sister. “Not right now because the season is over and work is winding down, but in the summer, I didn’t see her take a day of rest.”

Zonia Rivera with her daughter Andrea and her son Carlos when Andrea arrived in the U.S. Oct. 8, reunited with her mother after 11 years. Courtesy photo: Laura Rivera

Laura collapsed yesterday when she received the news of the death of Zonia and her family and was taken to Peconic Bay Medical Center for several hours. Laura and Zonia were not only sisters, they were also co-workers and partners in dreams and life in the United States.

“We worked together,” Laura said. “Every morning I would arrive and leave the car at her house and we would go together, or would she tell me are you going to go up? Do you want a coffee?” she remembered. “She was a woman who fought for what she wanted, who never gave up, an example for all people to follow.”

Laura says that Zonia held the reins of the family and watched over anyone who might need her, in a family clan composed of 12 brothers and sisters.

“She arrived first, she helped my nephew to get the visa, she brought me, she got the visa for her son, and then she got the visa for her daughter, who had arrived only a month ago,” she said.

Sixteen-year-old Andrea Isamar González, Zonia’s daughter, had been separated from her mother at 4 years of age, remaining behind in Guatemala with her grandmother. She arrived in the United States on Oct. 8, to reunite, after so long, with her beloved mother. Andrea was just adjusting to life in a different country and she had enrolled at Riverhead High School just two weeks before perishing in the horrific fire Tuesday night.

“Zonia was supremely happy to have her two children together, finally,” said Laura.

Zonia’s other child was Carlos Cifredo Peñate Rivera, 24, who worked in construction. Hours before the fire, he was at his house with friends, sharing a cake and some beers to celebrate his birthday. The friends left before 10 p.m. Tuesday night. According to police reports, a short time later, a massive fire engulfed the 114-year old house where he and his family shared a third-floor apartment.

“I do not understand anything, how all this happened, how not one of them was able to escape,” said Laura.

Douglas Rivera, left, and his half-brother Carlos Alberto-Ramos. Courtesy photoLaura Rivera

Also in the house was 24-year-old Douglas Edgardo Rivera Aguirre, Zonia’s nephew, who was orphaned at 10 months old and was supported and cared for by Zonia throughout his life. The fifth victim was Douglas’s halfbrother, Carlos Alberto Ramos Aguirre, 22 years old. They were both construction workers, full of dreams and plans, Laura said.

On Long Island, the only family member who survived was Laura, who lives in a different house in Riverhead, and today is trying to make sense of a terrible tragedy that has impacted the family here and in Guatemala. Her brother, who lives and works in Miami, arrived yesterday to help her face everything that is coming: The funeral services and the repatriation of the bodies to the municipality of Guatemala where the family is from and where today they are being mourned, Laura said.

An investigation is underway to try to determine the cause of the fire, according to police reports. A preliminary investigation determined that the fire was not criminal in nature.

“It’s very unfair, bad people go around doing bad things and nothing happens to them. Why this happened to them, good people, the best people, the children, my little ones, they were working all the time working,” Laura said.

Fundraising efforts are underway to help defray the cost of funeral expenses and transporting the family’s remains to Guatemala. Click here to donate.

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Juliana Holguin is a journalist and editor of Tu Prensa Local. Her work has been recognized with six journalism awards, including the Simón Bolívar National Award from Colombia. Send her an email: [email protected]