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84-Year-Old Harlem Man Killed in Fire Loved Life, Family and Friends Say

By Jeff Mays | May 18, 2012 9:32am
Horace Duncan, 84, died May 13, 2012 when fire engulfed his apartment at at the Henry Brooks Senior Housing center at 304 W. 154th St.
Horace Duncan, 84, died May 13, 2012 when fire engulfed his apartment at at the Henry Brooks Senior Housing center at 304 W. 154th St.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM—Even though he had lost his eyesight, 84-year-old Horace Duncan lived life to the fullest, friends, family and caregivers said.

If he wasn't in yoga class, he was exercising on the treadmill at the gym. On Sundays, he put on one of his sharp suits and headed to Bethany Baptist Church.

"He loved life. He loved to play with you, he loved jokes," said Duncan's long-time home health care aide Sheryl Carr.

But on Sunday, Duncan's apartment at the Henry Brooks Senior Housing Center at 304 W. 154th St. caught on fire at about 9:30 p.m.  It took more than 100 firefighters to extinguish the blaze.

Duncan was transported to Harlem Hospital where he was pronounced dead from smoke inhalation. His friends are still in shock at his death.

"I thought he could never be dead. He was a healthy man who wasn't lurking around the grave," said Carr's sister Sharon Craig who also befriended Duncan.

"That's why everyone is wondering what happened. He wasn't going anywhere."

Fire officials are still trying to determine a cause of the fire. Those who knew Duncan say he didn't smoke. Even though he was blind, he knew his way around his apartment and was sprightly enough to escape, they said.

A neighbor at Duncan's third floor apartment said Monday the smoke from the fire was thick, black and overwhelming.

"The black smoke jumped out at me," said Duncan's neighbor Cornies Hawthorne, 89, who said he tried to rescue his friend. "It was so thick I could feel it in my throat."

Duncan's niece Elvis Jerry-Lewis said she last heard from him when he called to wish her a happy Mother's Day on Sunday.

"I said I would call him back later but I didn't get a chance to," she said.

The next call was that Duncan was at Harlem Hospital which was followed by another that he had died from smoke inhalation.

"All we know is that they are investigating, but this has shocked everybody," said Jerry-Lewis.

Born in from Tobago where he worked as a longshoreman, Duncan came to the United States when he was younger but then returned to Tobago.

He returned to the U.S. a second time as an older man. His wife lived with him at the Henry Brooks Senior Housing center until she passed away four years ago. That didn't halt his activities, say friends.

Craig said he loved to dance and that they danced the entire evening when Duncan visited her home for Thanksgiving.

If he had lived to see his 85th birthday in June, Jerry-Lewis knows he would have ask for the same thing he did every year— a six-pack of Carib Beer, a lager which is popular in Trinidad and Tobago.

"Every time I saw him he would encourage me," said home health care aide Sophia Jarvis. He also liked to sing she said.

"He was always upbeat, just jovial," said friend Muriel Holland, 90. "He was just happy."

Services for Duncan will be held starting 5 p.m. Monday at Bethany Baptist Church in Harlem, 303 West 153rd St.

"The last time I saw him was Saturday at 9 p.m. and he was finer than wine," said Carr. "If anybody told me i wouldn't see him again, I wouldn't believe it."