By Allyson Escobar & Tim Harfmann
RICHMOND HILL — Students at Holy Child Jesus Academy in Richmond Hill have not forgotten a classmate who died in a house fire during the summer.
On Sep. 13, when the community gathered for its annual back-to-school barbeque, it paid tribute to members of a local family who perished in the fire.
On July 21, an accidental fire killed Silva Umana, 51, and two of her children: Gilbert Diaz, 19, and Guadalupe Perez, 7, who would have been a second-grader at Holy Child Jesus. Silvia’s 15-year-old son, Gabriel Diaz, survived.
During their tribute to the family, classmates, faculty and neighbors gathered with principal Patricia Winters and members of Guadalupe’s family to pray and to plant a rose bush outside the campus, a simple way of keeping Silvia, Guadalupe and Gilbert’s spirits alive.
“We are planting this tree today as a remembrance of Guadalupe, Silvia and Gilbert. We know that every time that we pass by and look at that tree, it will bring us good memories. It will remind us of Guadalupe’s smile and her great friendship, and it will next spring be full of flowers, and those beautiful flowers are going to [bring] back good memories,” Winters said.
“Right now we are saddened, and we will mourn … but this tree will always keep their memory alive. May this tree speak the power of Christ’s life in our midst, deeply rooted and ever growing in all creation,” she added.
Guadalupe’s first-grade teacher, Teresa Santa Maria, read from the Gospel of John. She remembered Guadalupe as a quiet person and an excellent writer who was loyal to her family.
“It’s weird to watch her classmates playing now without her,” Santa Maria said. “I’ll always remember her smile, her little white glasses.”
Members of Guadalupe’s class released balloons in the sky, filled with handwritten messages — a way of letting go.
The death of Guadalupe was also a reminder of the importance of fire safety. On Sept. 10, the FDNY’s fire safety education unit visited Holy Child Jesus Academy for a lesson on fire safety that included a discussion and live simulation. Students walked through a mobile smokehouse, navigating their way through theatrical smoke and fire.
“In a real fire situation, it’s black. We can [hardly see] in front of our face,” FDNY Lieutenant Ryan Gorecki said. “So what we’re trying to teach them is that your hands now become your eyes.”
“It was, like, pitch black, and I was super scared,” said student Sierra Suknannan.
Winters said that she wanted students to know what to do in the event of a blaze. “I think the children needed not only to review the rules and procedures, but to feel safe themselves, after what we’ve just gone through,” she said.