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As families mourn loss of five killed in fire, multiple fundraising efforts underway

About two years ago, Zonia Dinora Rivera Mendoza moved from Hampton Bays to Riverhead. She needed more space to accommodate her family and was planning for when her teenage daughter, Andrea Isamar Gonzalez Rivera, could join her from their native Guatemala.

A housekeeper, Ms. Rivera Mendoza, 42, found an ideal space in a century-old home on East 2nd Street, where she rented the third-floor apartment.

A little over a month ago, the mother and daughter reunited as 16-year-old Andrea arrived in the United States and moved into the Riverhead apartment where she would live with her brother and two cousins.

On Thursday, the five family members were confirmed as the victims of a tragic fire two nights earlier. Five additional people living in the multi-family residence escaped uninjured from lower floors with only the clothes on their backs. In Riverhead, it may be the deadliest blaze since five children died as the result of an arson on Harrison Avenue in July 1994.

The other family members killed in the fire have been confirmed as: Carlos Cífelo Penate Rivera, who died one day after his 25th birthday; Carlos Alberto Ramos Aguirre, 25, and Douglas Edgardo Rivera Aguirre, 27.

“We’re devastated at what happened,” said Ruben Gonzalez, Andrea’s father.

In an interview, speaking in Spanish, Mr. Gonzalez said he didn’t know specifics about what happened in the fire. He lives in Virginia and was traveling to New York Thursday night to help assist in funeral plans. He had separated from his ex-wife about eight years ago.

A memorial set up outside the home Thursday where five people died. (Credit: Melissa Azofeifa)

“I just received a phone call from New York that an emergency happened with my daughter,” he recalled.

Mr. Gonzalez, who had previously lived in Southampton and Hampton Bays for about 13 years, said he had been hoping to come to New York to celebrate Christmas with his daughter.

Rosendo Herrera of Riverhead said he knew Ms. Rivera Mendoza and the family for about 12 years, dating back to when they all lived in Guatemala.

Mr. Herrera, in an interview while speaking Spanish, said the North Fork Spanish Apostolate and Sister Margaret Smyth is assisting the family with planning services and to help transport the bodies back to Guatemala.

“Sister Margaret is giving me any information and updates that I am communicating back to their family in Guatemala to keep them updated on what’s happening here,” said Mr. Herrera.

Sister Margaret said Thursday that family members of the deceased were in her office to talk about funeral arrangements. She said they were in a “state of shock.” She said the Guatemalan consulate is also involved.

“They are coming back tomorrow to go over the arrangements,” she said. “The mother’s brother came up from Miami to help out with the arrangements. The consulate is involved and we’ve been asked to get all the paperwork together in terms of the identities of the deceased. All the personal paperwork was destroyed in the fire.”

Firefighters continue to douse the structure with water on Wednesday after the fire sparked late Tuesday night. (Credit: Melissa Azofeifa)

Suffolk County police have said the fire appears to be accidental and there is no criminality suspected. The investigation is ongoing by the Suffolk County Police Homicide Squad and Arson Section.

Tuthill-Mangano Funeral Home on East Main Street is working with the families, Sister Margaret said.

“Right now we are waiting for all the bodies to be identified,” she said.

She said people are calling her every day to ask how they can help.

“People are coming by and dropping off money,” she said. “A woman was just in and dropped off $100. I’m so very grateful people have come forward to help.”

Several other initiatives are already underway to assist the family. A GoFundMe page started by Kristen Leonard, a close friend of the family, has already surpassed $29,000 toward a $50,000 goal in the first 17 hours.

“They were a family that was built on love,” the GoFundMe page reads. “You could not know them without loving them. And to be loved by them was an honor. Their tragic deaths have left a wound that can never properly heal.”

Ms. Leonard could not immediately be reached for comment.

Antonio Villafranco, the president of a youth soccer league called La Liga de Riverhead, said he knew Ms. Rivera Mendoza’s son Carlos, who played on a team in the league. Carlos’ two cousins would sometimes come to watch games on Sundays as well.

Mr. Villafranco said he found out about the tragedy Wednesday when he got home from work. He quickly got to work planning a way to help the family by organizing a fundraiser.

“To the community, I say we need to unite,” he said in Spanish. “This is a tragedy. It could happen to any of us. Today we help them, in the future we could be the ones who need the help.”

A soccer tournament is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Sunday at Stotzky Park in Riverhead and will go until the late afternoon. Mr. Villafranco said 12 teams have already been confirmed to participate and each will donate a minimum of $500.

They’ve set a goal of raising $15,000.

He heard from additional community members on Thursday who asked if they could come sell food and drinks as a way to assist.

“With the league, whenever something happens in the community, I try to find a way to help,” he said.

Additional Benefits

North Fork Brewing Co., which is located on the same street where the house burned, announced a Riverhead Fire Relief Fundraiser on Saturday from noon to 8 p.m. In a partnership with Montauk Distilling Co., $1 from every beverage sold will be donated toward an American Red Cross disaster relief fund.

“We are utterly devastated by the news of the horrific fire that destroyed a beautiful home only a few hundred feet from our business and took the lives of a family,” the brewery posted on Facebook. More information can be found here.