By Harry Keaney
When 9-year-old Una Rogers dozed off to sleep in Hawthorne, N.J., last Wednesday night, she had the security and companionship of her family. But within a few nightmarish hours, she was left with only her 6-year old sister, Aoife.
Yesterday, amid tearful scenes in Ardee, Co. Louth, the girls’ father, James, mother, Deborah, and 4-year old brother, Colm, were laid to rest, victims of a fire that engulfed their home early Wednesday morning, April 5. Investigators say the fire started in the kitchen, probably on the stove, and spread quickly through the house.
As the smoke filled her upstairs bedroom, Una had lowered Aoife from an upstairs window to let her drop about 15 feet to safety on the ground below, according to local fire officials.
Then she urged little Colm to come, too, but he was scared of the height.
So Una jumped herself, hoping to find someone outside to help.
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Screaming and knocking on doors, Una and Aoife awoke those living below, the Rogers’ landlords, Frank and Dorothy Vargas.
Dorothy called 911 and Frank ran upstairs where he encountered smoke and fire. Because the two girls had escaped, he thought nobody else was inside.
A neighbor returning from work about 2:15 a.m. told the Bergen Record newspaper that he spotted flames coming from the house and ran over to the two agitated girls across the street. Firefighters had not yet arrived. He asked Una if she was OK and was then shocked to see her run back to the house and up the stairs in an apparent last-ditch effort to save her parents and brother.
Moments later she returned, having been forced back by thick black smoke.
When firefighters arrived they found Colm and his father dead on the floor of the girls’ bedroom, just a few feet from the open window. Deborah was found dead on the floor of another bedroom down a hallway.
Neighbors described the scene as "horrible," with flames shooting out the back of the house and "an incredible amount of smoke."
"People were crying and screaming, and they had the little boy laying on the sidewalk across the street, pumping his heart. But they said he was already dead," one neighbor told reporters.
All three died as a result of smoke inhalation, Sergeant Glenn Brown, chief of the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office arson investigation team, told the Echo.
Brown said the fire, at 60 Mary St., in Ashley Heights, was reported at 2:10 a.m. and that he got there about 3:10. "When I arrived, the fire operation was still under way," he said. "The Rogers lived in a two-family Dutch colonial-type house. They lived on the second floor, which was heavily damaged by the fire."
The two girls, pupils at the Washington Elementary School, were not injured. They were examined by doctors at Wayne General Hospital and subsequently released into the care of an aunt in Yonkers.
From the horror of what happened, Una’s heroic efforts to save her siblings will, perhaps in time, become her best source of consolation. Her courage and presence of mind have impressed many.
"One of the things I keep thinking about is that the 9-year-old had the knowledge to gather her younger siblings because they were cut off," Brown said. "They were in a bedroom at the side and to the rear of the house and for them to get to an exit they would have to go through a hot zone. The 9-year-old opened the storm window and the regular window and gathered her two siblings."
James and Deborah Rogers were Irish immigrants for whom things seemed to be working out. About a year ago, James, 30, formed his own construction company, 2K Visions, based in Manhattan.
"I have known him for about eight to 10 years," Jean Hyland, who works as a bookkeeper for 2K Visions, told the Echo. "He was just an outgoing character, very easy to get on with, very placid."
Rogers was no stranger to construction. His late father, Andy, had worked in the building business around their native Ardee. After James came to New York, he worked for LJM Construction, operated by Wicklow native James Mooney, who subsequently returned to Ireland. Mooney, who still maintains business interests in New York, immediately flew to New York on hearing of the tragedy that befell his former workmate.
When Rogers returned from work late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning, his wife and three children had probably gone to bed. Investigators said he apparently began preparing some food and, while waiting for it to cook on a gas stove, he may have fallen asleep on a nearby chair. According to Fire Marshal Al Ribbe, it appears, because of the injuries Rogers sustained, he attempted to put out the fire.
Brown told the Echo that, in the course of an investigation after the fire, a smoke detector was recovered in a hallway that provided access to the three bedrooms. But, he said, the battery in the detector had been reversed, it had never been turned around and connected.
"If this battery had been connected, this situation would have been averted," he said.
Brown, who has more than 25 years’ experience in working for the police and fire department, said this fire, where parents and a sibling died, was probably one of the worst situations he had seen.
James Rogers was son of Nancy and the late Andrew Rogers. He is survived by brothers David, Andrew, Tony and Paul and by a sister Siobhán. Deborah was daughter of Patrick and Maura Farrelly, and she is survived by sisters Tracey Haag and Susan, and by a brother, Robert.
News of the tragedy traveled fast to Ardee. Members of the Ardee Town Commission observed a minute’s silence during a meeting as a mark of respect. Commission chairman and Louth County Council member Finnan McCoy had known Deborah since she got her first job in McCoy’s Pub in the late 1980s.
"Deborah was a lovely girl coming from a highly respected family from Slíabh Bragh," he said, referring to the area in Ardee where she grew up. McCoy added that "Jim’s family . . . were well-known in the town with many relatives in the building trades."
A wake took place last Friday and Saturday in Hodders Funeral Home, McLean Avenue, in Yonkers. On Sunday, the bodies were flown from Kennedy Airport to Dublin for burial following Mass yesterday, Tuesday, in Ballapousta cemetery in Ardee, Co. Louth.
Fund for Rogers children
The Hawthorne Fire Department has set up a fund for the two surviving Rogers children.
"Needless to say, these two little girls face a life without a mother or father and the loss of a younger brothers," the fire department said in a statement signed by Fire Chief Victor Tamburro.
Donations may be sent to the Rogers Family Fund, Hawthorne Fire Department, 445 Lafayette Ave., Hawthorne, NJ 07506.
People seeking further information on this fund may call Fire Marshal Alan Ribbe at (973) 427-7544.