By Marco Poggio, Chelsia Rose Marcius, Esha Ray, Larry McShane
Bronx baby-sitter Maria Batiz, trapped with her 7-month-old granddaughter by a blistering five-alarm fire, dialed her daughter’s phone and started screaming.
“We’re going to die in here!” wailed the prescient Batiz, whose lifeless body was found clutching infant Amora Serenity Vidal as the pair sought deliverance inside a bathtub in her third-floor apartment.
Batiz, 56, and the beautiful dark-haired baby were among a dozen people killed Thursday night by the thick smoke and fast-moving fire in a century-old apartment building at 2363 Prospect Ave.
Heartbreak, devastation and disbelief were evident in the fire’s aftermath, with each floor and apartment in the five-story building bearing witness to its own trail of tears.
Two floors up from the doomed Batiz, the Francis family lost their mother, two small children and a niece — while their patriarch remained hospitalized Friday.
The niece had earlier wandered up from her basement apartment to say hi.
U.S. Army soldier Emmanuel Mensah, home for the holidays and staying with a pal, was down the hallway from the baby-sitting grandmom when the inferno began.
The 28-year-old disappeared in the massive confusion, and was identified Friday as one of the dead — found on the fourth floor, where he was trying to evacuate residents.
Young child playing with stove ignited Bronx fire that killed 12
“I heard that he was trying to help people,” said his father, Kwabena Mensah, 62. “He brought people out, went back in. Then, the third time, he couldn’t make his way out.”
A 12-year-old boy was killed, his identity still unknown, along with two other anonymous victims: a 50-year-old man and a woman in her 20s. Officials believed the pre-teen and the older man were possibly related.
The two other victims were identified as Justice Opoku, a man in his 30s or 40s, and Donkor Sollomon, 49, discovered inside Apartment 19.
The two, like Maria Batiz and little Amora, unsuccessfully sought safety inside a bathtub.
Batiz was baby-sitting her granddaughter when the blaze erupted on the first floor near the stairway, just two floors below her small studio.
Fire officials and workers from the Medical Examiner's Office remove a body from the apartment building at 2363 Prospect Ave. in the Bronx early Friday morning after a fast-moving, 5-alarm fire killed 12 people.
A maelstrom of smoke and fire almost instantly billowed up the lone staircase, trapping Batiz with the infant. The mom dialed up daughter Christine, 26, who urged the terrified Maria to find a safe place.
“My niece was telling her, ‘Get out! What are you doing?’” said Fernando Batiz, brother of the dead woman. “I guess (Maria) was hysterical, and she got trapped.
“She was scared. She was frantic. I guess the smoke overcame her.”
The story was eerily similar in the fifth-floor bathroom where the Francis family made their final stand. Mom Karen, 37, was overcome by smoke along with daughters Kelesha Charmela, 7, and Kylie, 2, as they hid from the flames.
Family member Shawntay Young, 19, lived in a basement apartment in the building — but had gone upstairs to visit with Karen Francis before a 3-year-old boy accidentally ignited the blaze.
The building was home to Karen Francis’ extended family. Her niece, Carmaleta Halladene, lived on the first floor and hauled her 5-year-old son down a back fire escape, covering the boy’s head with a hood as they ran through fire.
“I told him to put his hands in his pockets so the flames wouldn’t get on his skin,” Halladene said. “I saw the flames spitting out, pushing out.”
Halladene waited in vain for her family to meet her on the street; instead, she saw her uncle Holt Francis taken out of the building on a stretcher.
She ran to nearby St. Barnabas Hospital where she had the grim task of identifying the rest of her family.
Holt Francis was rushed to Jacobi Medical Center, where he has been resuscitated three times and needs a machine to breathe.
“The doctors called the family to ask to pull the plug,” Halladene explained, saying they refused.
Shawntay Young was Halladene’s sister. She dreamed of being a flight attendant and had a “beautiful soul,” her sibling said.
“She’s a kid at heart,” Halladene recalled.
The horrific circumstances surrounding Young’s passing haunts the boyfriend she left behind.
“I heard she was up top and couldn’t get down,” said Kenyon George, 19. The teary teen recalled that he slept through a call from Young earlier in the day Thursday.
“If I had picked up the phone, she would have been over here all day,” said George, who started dating the victim seven months ago. “It feels so surreal.”
Mensah’s relatives maintained their optimism as they stood vigil across parts of two days for the missing soldier, a native of Ghana who had just his finished basic training.
His dad went to four hospitals in search of his son as Emmanuel’s brother Twum Bredu prayed for his missing sibling.
There was reason for optimism: The family in the apartment where Mensah was staying had escaped with their lives. But the news was ultimately crushing.
Father Kwabena Mensah said the two missed out on a chance to spend their last Christmas together. He appeared stoic, but his sister Sherry Mensah said the death has devastated Kwabena.
“When you ask anything about (Emmanuel), he starts crying,” Mensah said. “He can’t hold it. Maybe tomorrow will be better.”
“We are asking ourselves, why didn’t he also escape? Why did he decide to go upstairs,” the Army mechanic’s heartbroken aunt said. “That is his nature. He just wanted to help and he thought he would be able to make it.”
Christine Batiz harbored few hopes about her family’s fate after the terrifying call from her mom.
In a post on a GoFundMe page to help with Batiz funeral arrangements, Christine recounted the call she got from her mom while on the job as a security guard.
“She told me there was a fire in the building and she was trapped,” wrote Batiz. “I never heard from her again . . . I lost my angel baby and my best friend, my mother.
“I lost everything in a matter of minutes. One thing you know my daughter is playing with her new (Christmas) toys, the next hour they are gone from my life.”
The little girl’s paternal grandmother, Nyvia Vidal, said Amora was just starting to crawl.
“She was my love,” said Vidal, 47, through tears. “She was my first grandbaby. It just hurts so much. I still can’t believe it.”
Vidal — whose son is engaged to Christine — recalled Amora’s delight on Christmas morning when she gave the little girl a race car and a ball.
“She was so sweet,” said Vidal. “She was smart. She responded a lot to her name. She’d look up at you, make a face. She was a character.”
Fernando Batiz, 54, said he had yet to track down his niece Christine since learning around 5 a.m. Friday that his older sister and the baby were among the dead.
Batiz and one of his brothers knew the two were missing, but the pair held out hope that Maria and the child had managed to escape.
“I’m like numb, I’m in shock,” said Fernando, who was homeless until his sister offered assistance. “She helped me out. She took me from the street.”
Batiz said Maria, who came to New York from Puerto Rico, was one of 10 children — five boys and five girls. The other sisters remain in Puerto Rico, he said.
He was worried about Christine after the young mother lost her own mom and daughter.
“That was her first baby,” said Fernando. “She’s a baby herself.”
At a vigil outside the building Friday night, three of Mensah’s friends — one in full Army uniform — left a bouquet of red and white flowers with a camouflage hat on top of a growing memorial.
Local firefighters also joined neighbors and family members to remember those lost.
David Vidal ventured back to the charred building where his daughter perished, early Saturday.
“I had to come out here one last time, Vidal told the Daily News. “They're (baby and grandma) watching us. They're blessing us everyday. I have to be strong for them and my family.”
“Hold what you have close,” Vidal said. “It can be gone be in a matter of seconds. Just because I don't have my loved ones, doesn't mean you can't hold your loved ones tighter.”