It was a semi-circle of anguish: five coffins lined up next to one another along the periphery of a Coney Island funeral chapel, one for each of the victims of a Bensonhurst blaze that engulfed our worst fears.
In a morbid assembly line, droves of mourners attending the service at the Coney Island Chapel on Mermaid Avenue went from coffin to coffin Friday, saying their final farewells.
The five victims — all Guatamalan natives — died in the January 30 blaze that ripped through two floors of apartments above a small sushi restaurant on 86th Street near 20th Avenue. Days later, one of the tenants, Daniel Ignacio, was arrested, charged with sparking the blaze after he tossed a roll of toilet paper he set aflame into a baby carriage under the stairs — the only means of escape for many of the upstairs residents.
Department of Buildings (DOB) inspectors later learned that someone had illegally subdivided the apartments to accommodate more people. When the fire broke out upwards of 18 immigrants — many of whom were undocumented — lived on the two floors, officials said. The DOB has since filed several violations with the property holder, some of which carry fines of $25,000.
A grand jury was still weighing the fate of Ignacio, who said that “demons” made him start the fire, which erupted into a dramatic scene that people only want to see in movies.
Witnesses said that terrified residents jumped out of building windows.
Members of the Chan family saw no recourse but to strap their newborn into her baby seat and toss her from a window — realizing it was better to die from a fall then to be burned alive.
The newborn’s father Miquel Chan created a human chain to lower their two-year-old boy Josias to safety as he and his wife Maria got separated by the flames.
“Take care of the children,” were her parting words for Miquel, before disappearing into the flames, according to published reports.
On Friday Josias was found standing tall with grieving family members, cradling a picture of his beloved mother, who rested in a white coffin in the center of the semi-circle.
Bill Lombardo, owner of Coney Island Chapels, said he offered to hold the funeral service free of charge because he felt the victims’ family and friends, as well as the outer lying community. needed a sense of closure.
The funeral services were delayed, however, because it took weeks to positively identify all of the victims. Some of the victims had to be identified through DNA matching with relatives in their native country.
Once the service concluded, Lombardo made sure that the bodies were sent back to Guatemala for burial.