Community members gathered on East Second Street last night for a vigil in memory of the five members of the Rivera family, who perished in a house fire one year ago.
Zonia Dinora Rivera, 41, her children, Carlos Cifredo Peñate Rivera, 24, and Andrea Isamar González, 16, and her nephews, Douglas Edgardo Rivera Aguirre, 24, and Carlos Alberto Ramos Aguirre, 22, died in the fire, trapped in a third-floor apartment when the blaze consumed a wooden stairway that was the only means of escape. The cause of death was smoke inhalation, according to the county medical examiner.
“Today we want to remember not only their tragic deaths, but that the people still love them,” Laura Rivera, Zonia’s sister, said. “I just know that we’re still in mourning, the feelings are the same, we’re just trying to survive with this pain, but we can’t accept it nor we want to accept it,” she said.
“I want to thank everyone that from the first day has been supporting us so much physically, spiritually, emotionally — we feel blessed for that support,” Laura Rivera said. “We want to thank them. My entire family wants to thank them.”
Last night, parishioners from St. John the Evangelist R.C. Church joined the Riveras’ family and friends to pray the rosary in Spanish one last time, staying for over two hours despite the cold temperatures.
An altar decorated with bright candles and beautiful flowers, bearing the pictures and names of the deceased loved ones, was set up outside the fenced vacant lot where the house once stood. It was the focal point for last night’s vigil, which also marked the last day of the novena for the dead, an ancient Christian tradition where people pray for nine consecutive days for the soul of the departed.
“We know that life can change in just one day. Tonight we are asking God for the Rivera family, so they can be comforted, for the souls of the departed,” said Rosendo Herrera, pastoral board member at St. John the Evangelist, who offered prayers and a reflection during the vigil.
“There are a lot of conflicting emotions today,” said Zonia’s brother, Lionel Rivera. “On one side we still are heart-broken — the pain is never-ending. On the other, we feel so grateful with everyone. The community has not left us. They have been with us every day since they died, and we feel so grateful, but it’s so hard,” he said.
“Today is very painful not only for us, but also for my family in Guatemala,” he said. “My mother in Guatemala is trying to cope with the help of God. We thought she was not going to make it, but with the help of God and his strength, she’s still here.”
Family in Guatemala will mark the occasion their own vigil on Saturday.
“No matter what, we have to keep living,” Lionel Rivera said. “We all have this cross to bear in different ways, but we have no other choice but to go on.”
Keith Polchies, a 16-year resident in one of the building’s second-floor apartments, stood in the street on the edge of the crowd. He recalled the horror of that night a year ago, when he lost everything but the clothes on his back. But he and the other tenants in the two apartments on the second floor, along with the owner who lived in the first-floor apartment, escaped with their lives. He spoke last night of the guilt he feels for having survived the fire.
“I tried to save them. I tried. I screamed ‘Fire!’ I made it out alive. I wish I could have done more,” he said growing emotional.
“I lived with them for about six years. They were a great family — couldn’t ask for nicer people. I just feel terrible I couldn’t do more… I feel terrible that I’m standing here, and they’re not.”
Polchies made a wooden plaque for the Riveras’ family members. It reads: “Live by the sun, love by the moon.”
“I knew I had to do something, so I made something for them,” he said. “It means wake up in the morning and be happy. The moon is shining. Good night. We didn’t know it was going to be their last night,” he said.
Suffolk County Police Department investigators determined that the cause of the fire was a cigarette or cigarettes discarded in a plastic receptacle on the front porch of the dwelling.
Riverhead firefighters responded to the alarm at 10:37 p.m. on Nov. 16, 2021. The home was fully engulfed in flames upon their arrival, a Riverhead Fire Department spokesperson said the next morning.
The charred remains of the home remained in place until the middle of last month, when it was demolished by the property owner.
Town records show Riverhead issued rental permits for the third-floor apartment for more than 20 years. The most recent rental permits issued to Cannella for the three apartments, issued in 2018, had expired on March 7, 2020. According to town records obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request, the town sent Cannella renewal notice in February 2020, but she did not respond. Town code enforcement inspectors called Cannella once and visited the home three times to verify the rentals, according to the records, but never made contact.
Riverhead Town served three summonses on Cannella just three weeks before the fatal fire for renting the apartments without permits. The summonses remain pending, with the next scheduled court date in January.
Notices of claims were served on the town — as well as on Suffolk County — by the proposed administrator of the estates of the Rivera family on Feb. 14. No lawsuit has yet been filed, according to online court records.
The Riverhead Town Board in June adopted a revised rental code requiring all third-floor rental units to have increased safety measures to protect occupants in the case of a fire. The new legislation will take effect in 2023.
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