Schuylkill County community comes together to remember four fire victims
Pee Wee football coach Joe Gervalis raises two helmets in the air during last night's vigil. Gervalis said that both Christian and Damian were going to play on his football team this year. He added that Christian won the award for most valuable player last year. "He was a hard-working kid and all about effort. Both kids were good little guys who were very respectful," Gervalis said. "Damian was going to play on our Little League team this year."
"We'll remember her as a hero."
That is what Eric Becker of Shenandoah said during last night's community candlelight vigil to describe the selfless actions of friend Tiffany Matejick-Sanchez, 29, during the last few seconds of a row home fire that claimed her life and that of her son, Cristian Sanchez, 10; and nephews, Damien Lopez, 10, and 7-month-old Aziah Hernandez early Tuesday morning.
After battling the blaze for many hours, firefighters found the bodies of Matejick-Sanchez and the three children huddled together near the second-floor bathroom window. Before she died Matejick-Sanchez saved her other son, Diego Sanchez, 8, by placing him out a second-story window onto a roof. Diego survived, and is recovering from burns and smoke inhalation.
"Children were always a priority in her life," Becker added, "no matter who they belonged to."
Community and family members decided to hold the vigil as a way for the community to come together with victims, family and friends to show their support.
Tuesday's fire claimed four homes and damaged three others. The home at 117 E. Coal St. along with a home at 119 E. Coal St. occupied by Ana Vittini, 45, her two daughters, Stephanie, 19, and Pamela, 11; and her mother, Songa Cordero, 71, were destroyed by the fire. Another home at 121 E. Coal St., occupied by Michael Major and his four daughters, Samantha, 20, Savannah, 18, Sara, 15, and Grace, 12, sustained major fire, smoke and water damage while a home at 115 E. Coal St., occupied by Terry Karpovich, sustained minor damage.
During the hourlong vigil, family, friends and co-workers of the victims were given the opportunity to speak about Matejick-Sanchez and the three children.
"That was an amazing, amazing family," said Amy Sanchez, of Hazleton, who is not related to Matejick-Sanchez. "Just look around and you can see how many lives these people touched."
Speaking on behalf of all the firefighters who battled the blaze, one firefighter said, "We did all we could possibly do and wish there had been more we could have done." The crowd responded and yelled "thank you" to all the firefighters.
The fronts of the burned homes were covered with hundreds of expressions of sympathy for the victims, consisting of poems, cards, letters, balloons, teddy bears and more. A sign read "One Town, One Heart Broken."
"I never had the chance to say goodbye," said a teacher. It was one of the many messages third-graders wrote on a white board at Shenandoah Valley Elementary School on Wednesday as a way of dealing with the shock and grief of unexpectedly losing two friends in Tuesday's fire.
Counselors were brought into the schools, as well as to comfort emergency responders, who were emotionally affected by the tragedy.
Family members of the victims expressed their appreciation to all the emergency responders, who were quick to respond to the conflagration. They also thanked the Schuylkill and Eastern Northumberland Chapter of the American Red Cross for providing assistance to all the surviving families displaced by the fire, as well as for providing food and refreshments to the firefighters. Community members pointed out that there was an outpouring of care from people, organizations and businesses; such as Burger King, which donated hot food items, Turkey Hill, which donated gallons of hot coffee, and Boyer's Food Market, which donated supplies for soup.
"I was so impressed with the amount of people that came out tonight to show support for Tiffany's family and friends," Becker said last night. "Thank you Shenandoah!"
After all the stories, community prayers and songs, Sanchez said, "When everybody goes home tonight, make sure you hug your kids. Don't take a single day for granted."