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Co-workers mourn death of upstairs tenant in Humber Avenue fire

Juan Montanez didn’t call for a ride to work Friday morning, and his friends couldn’t reach him to find out what was wrong.

Then they heard the news about the fire on Humber Avenue, a fire that claimed the lives of a father trying to save his son and a 49-year-old tenant who lived upstairs.

“That’s how we found out,” Jose Luis Figueroa said Saturday.

Figueroa’s friends all knew where he lived – they went to the house at 90 Humber regularly to drive him to and from work at Figueroa’s West Side garage.

“We dropped him off the night before and we were supposed to pick him up this morning,” Figueroa said. “He was a friend, and he was like family.”

On Friday morning, they said, they kept calling and calling, and could not reach their friend.

Before dawn, a fast-moving fire had swept through the two-story house where Montanez lived and he was unable to escape the second-floor apartment. Downstairs, Demetrius Johnson, 24, had gotten out with his fiancée, Tempest Thomas, their 15-month-old boy and their 8-year-old daughter, who suffered serious burns. But 3-year-old Demetrius Jr. was still in the house. Johnson went back in.

Firefighters arrived quickly and were able to rescue the boy, who suffered smoke inhalation. Johnson died inside the house.

The building was demolished by late Friday and on Saturday when Figueroa and other friends came by to light candles for their friend, there was nothing left but the basement walls, a lingering odor of smoke in the air and a pervasive feeling of helplessness for their lost friend and co-worker.

“How did this happen?” they asked. “Do they know how it happened yet?”

They said Montanez had done his best to fix up his apartment but was not happy with the place and planned to move as soon as he could.

“The landlord wasn’t doing anything. They weren’t paying the water bill, so (Montanez) had to pay it to get the water on,” Figueroa said. He added that he also tried to reach the landlord on his friend’s behalf, but had no luck getting a response. Property records show the house was owned by Sayara Uddin of Brooklyn, who purchased it in 2013 for $24,000.

The group’s frustration was second only to their sense of loss, with all saying how much Montanez will be missed. They described him as a kind man and a reliable worker.

“He was a hardworking man, and very good at working on cars. He knew everything about cars,” one friend said. “He always tried to fix everything.”

Along with the flowers and candles they placed at the fire scene, the men also draped an American flag on some pieces of wood next to a small cross where the house once stood. They brought it, they said, for the “gentleman who lived downstairs,” because he was a hero.

Jesse Jackson, a GM retiree who lives next door, also was impressed by Johnson in the brief time he lived there. Jackson said that he had run his snowblower on the sidewalk at 90 Humber himself after a storm when the family first moved in earlier this month, when they were getting settled.

“The next time it snowed, he (Johnson) was out clearing his place and mine,” Jackson said. “I didn’t know him, but he seemed like a good man.”

Jackson also said that tenants in the house had a history of trouble with the landlord and Montanez wasn’t the first to want to move out. He estimated there have been more than a dozen different people and families renting the two apartments in the two years since the house was sold.

Some mentioned problems inside the house and neighbors could see the problems outside – shrubs that were never trimmed and a lawn that the owner never had mowed.

On Friday, Johnson’s family members said that the smoke detectors in the house didn’t go off and that they had called the landlord earlier about an electrical problem in the house.

Buffalo fire investigators were looking into whether an electrical malfunction could have started the fire and have not yet released their findings.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s brother, William Johnson, said the family is raising money for a funeral and arrangements have not been completed yet.

Demetrius Jr. was being treated for smoke inhalation at Women & Children’s Hospital. The 8-year-old, Treasure Brighon, was taken by jet to Shriners Hospital for Children in Cincinnati, and Wings of Hope flew her mother and grandmother to join her Saturday.

Meanwhile, the community is rallying to help the family. They will need household items and clothing: boys’ size 2 and 5; girl’s size 14-16 husky; and women’s size petite/small or 5/6. Those who wish to donate money should make checks out to Tempest Thomas.

Donations can be dropped off at First Centennial Baptist Church, 273 High St., Monday through Friday from noon to 3 p.m., or at the Channel 2 building at 259 Delaware Ave., weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Mount Hope Community Church, 1326 Broadway, is holding a prayer service for the family Sunday at 12:30 p.m.