NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A teenager on a Father's Day visit to Newark to honor his deceased dad died, along with his mother and four others, when a fast-moving fire ripped through a three-story home early Sunday, authorities and the boy's grandmother said.
The blaze broke out at the single-family residence about 4 a.m. and soon spread to another home, the Essex County Prosecutor's office said. Both structures were destroyed.
Iris Sydney, of neighboring Irvington, stood outside the burned-out residence later Sunday, clutching a framed studio portrait of her grandson and his mother. They were supposed to meet her for a Father's Day service at the Solid Rock church, where his father attended services before he died two years ago in a bicycle accident in Newark, she told The Associated Press. But they never showed up.
When Sydney returned home from church, a sheriff's deputy was standing at her door and gave her the sad news: 15-year-old Stephan Sydney and his mother, Noreen "Michelle" Johnson, were killed in the fire, along with four others.
Sydney, 77, said the boy and his mother were visiting from Crawford, Georgia, and were staying with Johnson's relatives at the house, now black and charred, when the fire broke out. The boy had gotten a haircut for church.
"I can't believe this," she said. "But I'm telling you: I buried my husband ... I bury my son, and now this is my grandchild. I feel it. I feel it in my heart ... This is a sad day for the Sydney family. It is."
Authorities have not determined the cause of the fire but say it doesn't appear to be suspicious, according to Thomas Fennelly, chief assistant prosecutor. Everyone in the second home managed to escape safely, he said.
All that remained of the home Sunday afternoon was the blackened frame, with piles of twisted furniture and belongings spilling out of the empty sills that once held windows. The white fence around the front of the property was still intact.
Carol Valentine sorted through smoke-damaged photographs and photo albums with charred pages on the sidewalk in front of her fiance's home, which is next door to the residence where the fire started. Her fiance had been out of town and returned early Sunday to his home, which was already ablaze.
"He'd been delayed on planes for two days. He had gone to a graduation," she said. "Had he not been delayed, he would have been sleeping, and he probably wouldn't be alive."
She said she didn't know much about the neighbors.
Sydney said both sides of Stephan's family have ties to the Caribbean. She is a native of Georgetown, Guyana, and Stephan had been scheduled to go with his maternal grandmother on Wednesday to her native Trinidad and Tobago for a month-long visit with family there.
Cheryl Sydney, the teenager's aunt, was still wearing her white church dress and pearls as she stood across the street from the fire-ravaged house. She described how she admired both her nephew and his mother and listed their good qualities.
"Main thing is that she was a good person, a young, vibrant person," Cheryl Sydney said. "This is my nephew — young, 15-years-old, artistic, poetry, dancer — did not deserve this."
Interim Mayor Luis A. Quintana, who went to the fire scene as firefighters worked to control the blaze, said in a statement Sunday: "Our heartfelt condolences go out to the family and friends of our six residents whose lives were taken by this horrific fire.
"As we mourn the loss of these six residents, I ask Newarkers to cherish being with their families today and keep all those affected by this fire in their prayers," he said.
A small storefront church called Tree of Life Ministries, on the other side of the home where the six died, appeared undamaged. Neighbors gathered outside the home — many in their Sunday church clothes — shaking their heads at the loss of so many lives.
The Rev. Thomas Ellis lives in the neighborhood and stopped by to offer his support.
"For the city of Newark, this is a sad and tragic day," he said. "The community is hurting."
He and about 15 others held a prayer vigil Sunday evening.