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Mothers of Pair Killed by Tree in Sandy Built Friendship Amid Tragedy

By Meredith Hoffman | October 29, 2013 7:06am
 The two mothers have become close friends after losing their children in Hurricane Sandy.
Fran Streich and Marcia Sikowitz
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PARK SLOPE — Clad in their children's clothes and jewelry and standing on the Park Slope corner where the pair were last photographed alive, two mothers who had never met before Hurricane Sandy hugged one another close.

Their deep bond stemmed from incomprehensible loss — the death of their 24-year-old son and daughter in Hurricane Sandy. Close friends Jessie Streich-Kest and Jacob Vogelman had been walking Streich-Kest's dog in Ditmas Park when a tree toppled, killing them both.

“I feel like our souls are connected because our children died together,” said Fran Streich, Streich-Kest’s mother who lost her husband, renowned activist Jon Kest, just one month later.

“If I’m feeling like I can’t breathe or I’m going to have a stroke, when I text Fran she’s often in the same place,” said Vogelman’s mother Marcia Sikowitz. “She’s not judging and she understands there’s nothing she can do. She listens.”

The two women — who now speak almost every day and attend a grief group together — barely knew one another while their children, who they described as "compassionate and giving" friends since the sixth grade, supported each other through the struggles of growing up.

Now they are inseparable, and sometimes compare thoughts on their children's final moments together.

"I always imagine they were talking and laughing together," Sikowitz said of the pair's last trip to walk Max, a shepherd-hound mix, during the height of the storm. "They [shared] a mutual taking care of each other."

On the one-year anniversary of the pair's deaths, Streich wears her daughter's necklace and cares for Max, who was badly injured in the accident.

"He used to be a lot happier," Streich said of Max.  "He's not himself…He used to howl whenever he'd see people, he was so excited, but he doesn’t howl anymore."

Meanwhile Sikowitz dons her son's pants, preserves his bedroom with a quilt of his old T-shirts, and keeps her apartment filled with his photographs.

Streich-Kest was a teacher at the Bushwick School for Social Justice, where students this summer painted a piano with hearts to honor her.

"[Streich-Kest] has changed my life and I would not be where I am today without her encouragement," wrote Streich-Kest's former student Christiane Villareal, who won a scholarship in Streich-Kest's name. "I wish I could have thanked her personally for all the help she gave me last year."

Animal rights and scholarship funds have been created in honor of Streich-Kest, a passionate activist who worked with her father's organization New York Communities for Change and helped lead the movement against horse carriages. And Streich-Kest's close family friend Barbara Gross said the young woman was a "beautiful human being" who had been "kind to all creatures."

And a plaque in front of Brooklyn College's new auditorium will honor Vogelman, who was completing his M.F.A. in technical theater.

Evan Bjornen, Vogelman's neighbor, said the aspiring theater producer had "just grown into himself" and his career after a childhood filled with imagination and dreams.

"He would come in and tell fantastical stories, like of building a rocket ship of paper towels," Bjornen reminisced of Vogelman's youth.

Handwritten notes have poured into the homes of both the families, telling of the impact that Streich-Kest and Vogelman had on the people around them.

"People I don't even know have written to say how Jake helped them...he helped one little girl learn to ride a bike and I didn't even know," Sikowitz said.

Still, the mothers bleakly acknowledge, nothing can bring their children back.

"They say people in the hurricane lost everything...but they didn't lose their children," said Sikowitz, "I'd give up everything. I'd live on the street if I could just see my son one more day."

Those who went to the scene of the tragedy in Ditmas Park in the wake of the pair's death said it looked demolished.

"Every tree was down, resting on a house," said Bjornen, who had gone to get Vogelman's car after the incident. "When the wind comes they turn into big sails and turn up."

As hard as it is for Streich and Sikowitz to return to that Ditmas Park block, they plan to honor Vogelman — who is survived by his father and two 24-year-old brothers, and Streich-Kest — who is survived by her younger brother — with a ceremony there.

"Marcia and I are going to go over to the spot where the tree killed them," Streich said. "A friend made a mosaic. We're going to put it there and plant some daffodils."