The cause of the three-alarm fire at 18-20 Russell St. that claimed the life of 46-year-old Tanya Conklin and seriously injured four others on Saturday, April 21 had yet to be determined by investigators as of Wednesday. According to Police Chief Joseph Sinagra, who spoke Monday, April 23 there is “no indication whatsoever at this time that it was an intentional act.”
The typically quiet street has been open to through traffic since late Monday afternoon. The site still smelled of heady smoke on Monday evening and has been peopled by Central Hudson employees, reporters and rubberneckers, both on foot and in vehicles.
“Everyone is driving by and stopping — just let it go,” said a neighbor who declined to be named. “We have to drive by that house every day. Somebody died there. They have a family, now it’s torn apart, however it started. Thank God that the wind wasn’t blowing that day.”
The first 911 call came in at 2:16 a.m. Saturday; fire personnel responded to the scene three minutes later, and according to Village Fire Chief Chris Wade, “there was heavy fire on all sides of the building when [they] arrived,” and all of the occupants with the exception of the deceased Conklin were out of the building. About 100 firefighters from five different companies spent two hours bringing the blaze under control, parking 15 fire trucks along Russell and Post streets.
Six Central Hudson employees restored electricity to 26 homes in the vicinity by 7 a.m. by fixing transformers that had succumbed to the heat. According to Wade, the initial investigation suggests that the fire started on the first floor of the center residence.
“I woke up to screams and I just saw the house totally engulfed in fire. That’s right when I started seeing the ambulances and fire trucks. I guess when you’re just watching it burn [the response time] seems longer,” said Christine Johnson of 31 Russell St. “It shocked me to see how long it took to see them get the fire under control. They were just spraying and spraying and it was so powerful.”
Tanya Conklin, who lived in Apt. 2 with her family, was found dead in a rear bedroom, town police said. Also living there was 22-year-old Brittany Conklin, 21-year-old Malikye Stokes, 17-year-old Samantha Widener and 9-year-old Desiree Widener. A 17-year-old female friend of the family, Amber Engwiller of Mount Marion, was staying over in the apartment at the time of the fire. Engwiller, who sustained burns and injuries when escaping by jumping out a second story window is at Westchester Medical Center, listed in critical but stable condition. All occupants of the apartment other than Conklin and Engwiller were treated for minor injuries and released.
The fire, town police said, started in Apt. 1, which was occupied by 37-year-old Nawabzada A. Khan, his wife Monna Khan, and their three children — a 10-year-old boy, a 9-year-old girl and a 3-year-old boy. Nawabzada A. Khan, Monna Khan and their 10-year-old son were taken to Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla with extensive burns and were listed on Monday, police said, in critical but stable condition. The other two children were not injured and are currently in the care of relatives, police said.
The occupants of Apt. 3, 24-year-old Danielle Conklin and 29-year-old Brian Shultis, were not injured.
“Why couldn’t God just give her a few more seconds so she could’ve jumped out herself. Why? If God was so great, then why would he take my mother away when she never hurt a soul,” wrote Brittany Conklin in a Facebook post. “I’m angry at myself for not being by her side. It all makes me want to scream.”
Village Building Inspector Eyal Saad said the last time the Russell Street Building, erected in 1910, was inspected was in 2015, when the property was bought by Brooklynite Giuseppe Sireci. Saad said it’s yet to be confirmed whether there were smoke detectors installed.
“In the safety inspection, they were required to have smoke alarms and detectors,” said Saad. “Normally, multifamily dwellings get inspected every three years. The only inspection that gets done is common areas — that specific building doesn’t have a common area so there’s no inspection. We are only required to inspect the common area and if there is a vacancy we can inspect the vacancy.”
Saad said that the tragedy has moved him to seek to improve local fire codes to prevent further fatal incidents.
“Maybe in the future we will have to change the code to address these things — some of these buildings fall through the cracks and I can’t be there 24/7,” he said. “I’m trying to think of ways we can improve. If you can send a message to the community, make sure that you have smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors. Check them every six months.”
Two GoFundMe initiatives have since been started to raise money for the Conklin family, which effectively lost all their belongings in the inferno. One, spearheaded by Nicole Cogswell and entitled “Friends Lost Everything in a Fire,” had accrued $2,285 of its $20,000 goal as of April 26. The other, headed by Adrienne Miller and called “House Fire Victims,” had raised over $2,721 on behalf of the Kahn family.
Donations are also being accepted at Price Chopper stores in Ulster, Greene and Columbia counties, including the Saugerties location where Tanya Conklin was employed; the franchise will match donations up to $1,000. The Saugerties Fire Department Ladies Auxiliary has launched a clothing drive for the affected children of the Conklin family and other occupants of the homes; sizing information can be found on the group’s Facebook page, and clothing and monetary donations will be accepted at Mirabella’s restaurant on Partition Street.
“Today, we’re becoming present with it emotionally,” said neighbor Lorrie Wardell on Monday, two days after the event. “We’re finding that today is worse than yesterday.”
Numerous fire departments, including Saugerties, Centerville-Cedar Grove, Mount Marion, Glasco Malden-West Camp and the Ulster Hose FASTeam were at the scene. Saxton-Kaatsban set up a landing zone; West Hurley and East Kingston backed up Centerville-Cedar Grove and Saugerties respectively. Ambulances there included Diaz, Northern Dutchess Paramedics, Mobile Life, Woodstock and Catskill.
According to Saad, the last such fatal fire within the village was 28 years ago and took the life of an elderly woman living on Ulster Avenue. According to the collective memory of Saugertiesians as expressed on Facebook, other remarkable local fires include the Cantine fire in 1978; the mill fire on Partition Street in 1977; a fire on West Bridge Street that took the life of one Mr. Campbell in the late ’50s or early ’60s; the fire that claimed Bill’s Corner Store; and a blaze on Partition and Post streets in the ’60s.