State fire investigators were unable to determine the cause of a deadly Saugerties house fire at 18-20 Russell St. on April 21, nor whether working smoke detectors were in the home at the time of the fire.
The black desiccated building still yawns over the village street. The property, surrounded by a chain link fence, cannot be demolished or tampered with due to looming lawsuits which may be leveled by the home’s occupants against not only landlords Giuseppe and Peter Sireci, but the Village of Saugerties.
A memorial for Tanya Conklin who, her family says, perished trying shepherd her children out of the blaze, still stands.
What also remains is the grief and pain of Tanya Conklin’s loved ones. In a series of interviews over the past few weeks, the family talked about how hard it’s been for them to get their shattered lives back together.
Tanya Conklin, 46, who lived in Apt. 2 with her family, was found dead in a rear bedroom. Also living with her were 22-year-old Brittany Conklin, 21-year-old Malikye Stokes — Brittany’s fiancé — 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 also staying over in the apartment at the time of the fire.
“She was very loving and kind — she always helped those in need whenever she could,” said Brittany of her mother. “She treated everyone like they were her family. My fiancé for instance, even when we broke up in the past, she still treated him so well. She was so generous to everyone even if she didn’t know them. She was my best friend, basically my only friend.”
Memories of rousing from sleep in a panic and jumping out windows, fire behind them, haunt the survivors.
“Samantha woke up yelled, ‘Fire!’ Then we woke up, saw the fire, and we all scattered different directions,” said Randy Widener, Desiree and Samantha’s father. “Brittany and I went down the stairs. I couldn’t get the door opened, so Brittany ran back up the stairs to the bathroom window with Malikye, Samantha, Desiree and Tanya. Samantha’s friend went to the bed room to get out of the window when I was still trying to get the door opened. After I got out though the door, everyone was on the ground, on the back porch, except for Tanya.”
Widener described leaving the hospital to return to the scene, anxious to know whether his partner’s body had been recovered from the wreckage. It was found at around 7:30 a.m.
Brittany seems to be making her first steps towards putting the night behind her. “I haven’t gone out with friends since I lost my mother, until a few days ago, and I finally got to laugh and enjoy myself without feeling unwanted,” she said. “Talking about it helps me the most.”
In addition to the friends and family that have begun to help her restore some semblance of normalcy, she expressed an appreciation for the community that came together to help her and her family to rebuild. “I just want to thank everyone who has started fundraisers for us and all of Saugerties for coming together to make things easier on us. If no one helped, we would’ve had to start completely new, with everything. I’m grateful for what everyone has done for my family.”
After taking only two weeks off work after the incident, Brittany kept her job at the floral counter of Saugerties’ Price Chopper. The chain held a fundraiser at all their regional locations, matching donations up to $1,000 for the family. Brittany said the fundraiser “… made more than any fundraiser held for an employee.”
GoFundMe initiatives for the two families raised a total of $8,600. A fundraiser at the Smokin’ Pony donated $2,400 to both of the families affected by the fire. (The Khan family did not respond to requests for an interview.) Mirabella’s and other community organizations held clothing drives and yard sales to help support the victims.
For others, such as fiancé Randy, the process of healing is still ongoing. “I go by the house every time I can to pay my respects to Tanya, and it hurts every time.”
A Staten Island native turned Saugertiesian, Widener met Tanya Conklin in Saugerties at a young age and they remained part of each other’s lives for almost two decades, raising and supporting their family. In speaking to the aftermath of the fire, Widener spoke candidly about the impact of his partner’s loss. “It’s kind of hard to fill Tanya’s shoes and my shoes at the same time. She was a stay-at-home mom while I went to work — now, I can’t do that. It went pretty good until the house fire. Life would’ve been better if she was still here.”
Although he said he continues to seek assistance from local and federal agencies, the difficulties of putting the family back together have often been set back, he shared, by reams of red tape and in some cases, third-party negligence.
Widener said he now sees a psychiatrist and takes three medications, he said, for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Widener was unemployed in April before the tragedy took place — he said that, months afterwards, an attempt to resume working at a nearby lumber yard “set off [his] PTSD,” and that his psychiatrist recommended his decision to file for disability. The two children in his care, Samantha and Desiree, have also been affected — Widener said that the girls have struggled in their schoolwork and to sleep at night, afraid to wake up to the smell of smoke.
To add insult to injury, Widener claims that Sireci has yet to return his security deposit. “We paid out-of-pocket for the hotels. The last couple months, Social Services was supposed to help me, but they haven’t,” he said. “[Giuseppe Sireci] won’t even give me my security deposit back. The day it happened, I asked for my security back, he said he would talk to me the next day, and never gave it back.”
Sireci did not respond to a request for comment.
According to Village Code Enforcement Officer Eyal Saad, the property owner has expressed an interest in rebuilding the property once the ruin is demolished. Saad last inspected 18-20 Russell St. in March 2015. Although Saugerties building code dictates that multiple occupancy homes with common areas should be inspected every 36 months, Saad says that the home has no common area, and that he isn’t the only party responsible for arranging an inspection.
“We send letters [notifying property owners of the need for an inspection] every two years — we try to get everybody within the three years,” said Saad in an interview this week. “It’s not the most perfect world — some people don’t get back to you and by the time they get back to you it’s too late. The law does not actually specify what the homeowner should do if they don’t get inspected, and there’s no repercussion for homes that don’t get inspected,” said Saad. “If I inspect it and find a violation, I write it up. It’s difficult for us to keep people out of their homes and apartments. We need to be invited into the home do to an inspection. We try our best to get within the three years. It’s not easy to inspect 700 apartments, and you can only send so many letters to get someone’s attention. Sure, I could condemn the apartment, but then what? Once I leave and we put the lock on, that’s it, no one’s allowed in there.”
The Conklin-Widener clan insists that there were no fire escapes, fire extinguishers or smoke detectors mounted in the home; no evidence of them was found in the charred ruins, according to the state report.
“It’s the tenant and landlord’s responsibility for smoke detectors,” said Saad. “I’m only taking a snapshot out of this whole big picture as a building inspector.”
There is no simple remedy, no magic bullet to heal feelings of longing, fear, guilt and loss that remain, long after the fire was extinguished. Brittany, though, offered these words of advice for anyone shouldering a comparable burden:
“I’m not coping well, but definitely being surrounded by family and love will help. Going out with friends gets my mind off things for a small amount of time.”