HAMILTON HEIGHTS — The family of Melisa Mendez, the 15-year-old who died in a Hamilton Heights fire last Monday, is struggling to put the teen to rest, according to their church pastor.
The girl's father, Antonio Mendez Calderon, 74, told the Rev. Baltazar Sanchez of the Church of Annunciation that he wants to bury his daughter in their native Dominican Republic, but, after the fire that left more than 100 people homeless, he doesn't have enough money to get the girl's body out of the city morgue.
The funeral date has not been set because Mendez's family needs money to pay for the service and plane tickets. The church was planning to collect money during weekend services and through the next week to help pay the costs, Sanchez said.
The FDNY said the fire was caused by an overloaded power strip under furniture. It quickly spread up a stairwell because the tenant of the apartment where it started left the door open while fleeing, officials said.
City Councilman Mark Levine has worked with West Harlem Group Assistance to set up a donation fund for everyone affected by the fire at 512 W. 136th St., including helping with funeral costs for Mendez.
"While the city is able to help address some of their short-term needs, it can't fully help these people rebuild their lives when they were left with nothing," Levine said in a statement. "That's where we as a community have to step in and help to fill the gap."
Clothes, kitchen appliances, toys and money are all being donated at the church to help, officials said.
“It looks like everyone lost their possessions," Sanchez said in Spanish. "The donations are for the future, to help them return to a sense of normalcy.”
Meanwhile, the entire congregation is grieving the loss of the bright, young girl, the priest said.
Every service at the Church of the Annunciation this week has been dedicated to Mendez, an honor roll student to wanted to go into medicine.
Mendez and her mother were regulars at the church on Convent Avenue after moving to the United States from Santo Domingo in 2010. They were members of a small church group devoted to the Virgin Mary and were regulars at 7:30 p.m. Mass during the week. The teen would often sing, Sanchez said.
"That's why everyone here is taking her passing so hard," the priest said. "Everyone knew her."
“Her mother is a woman of faith. That’s how she is coming to terms with the loss,” added Sanchez, who has visited the family several times.
He said the mother recalled a recent trip she took with her daughter.
“She is starting to open up. The other day she told me about how they spent the weekend together.”
They had gone on a church retreat to upstate New York. The two came back Sunday night before Monday’s fire, he said.
Mendez’s two older brothers and father are also having a difficult time with the teen's death, the priest said.
“She was the baby of the family,” he said. “They are understandably angry.”