Friday, April 11, 2008

Happy Land fire haunts mom

Tuesday, March 25th 2008, 4:00 AM


Maria Romero (r.), daughter Joselyn and son Norman Jose hold picture of oldest daughter Isabel, who died in the Happy Land fire.

Maria Romero, 52, sees the endless white sheets laid out on the sidewalk and hears the screams of the families left behind as if it all had happened just yesterday.

"It is 18 years, but for me it is every day that she dies," Romero said in Spanish.

Romero lost her 17-year-old daughter, Isabel Lopez, along with three nephews and two nieces in the Happy Land fire on March 25, 1990 - what was then the largest mass murder in American history.

Eighty-seven people died within minutes when the boyfriend of the woman checking coats at the Honduran social club set a fire in the stairwell and then watched as the bodies were carried out.

Life has moved on for Romero. She has worked for 22 years as a home health-care attendant. She has four grandchildren.

Her son, Norman Jose, with whom she was pregnant that fateful night, is now 17, the age Isabel was when she died in the fire.

Romero helped plan this year's public anniversary remembrances, held on Tuesday of this week, and Sunday, but she said she personally treats every day like an anniversary.

She said she goes by the monument to the victims on Southern Blvd. and E. Tremont Ave. daily: "I have the keys. I leave things there at her name and I clean it."

She said she regularly talks to her daughter, who was an 11th-grader at Roosevelt High School who loved to dance and cook. She stares at her daughter's photo in the living room, forever frozen in youth.

Betsy (Kathy) Romero, 21, the daughter's niece, does not remember the fire. She was only 3 years old when her father, Francisco "Query" Romero, died in the flames, leaving her, her three siblings and a pregnant wife behind.

She holds on to a few flashes of memory of her father - him bringing her candy and calling during his work break to talk to her.

Living off of social security and the court settlement, the family of six tried to get by for several years in the Bronx. But 11 years ago, they moved back to Honduras to be with the rest of their family - broken from the tremendous loss thousands of miles away.

Romero went to a private bilingual school there and when she turned 18, she used the money given to her by the court settlement to buy a house in Honduras, where her mother now lives.

A year ago, Romero returned to the United States to fulfill her dream of going to college and medical school, but she struggles balancing time and money as a day care worker, a mother to a 5-year-old and a student.

"Sometimes I think I need my father," she said. "Then I would just need to work or go to school, not do everything. It makes me cry. If I had my dad, my life would be so different for me."

Romero said commemorating the anniversary of her father's death is important to her, even though she does not remember the day when it happened. Even when her family moved to Honduras, every March 25th, she said her family gathered to looked at photographs.

"How many families were destroyed?" she said. "They were all good people, hard working people who came here to work."

But her anger toward Julio Gonzalez, the arsonist who is serving multiple 25-year prison terms and will be eligible for parole in March 2015, is limited.

"I can't be mad. Things happen because God permits it. Even though he took my father away, it's hard, but things happen so other good things happen eventually."

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