NEW YORK — France McDonald stood outside his 3-year-old daughter’s funeral last week in tears, smoking a cigarette and wondering what kind of man he was.
If he were fleeing from a burning building, trying to lead his family to safety — his skin stinging with heat, his lungs filling with smoke — and he heard a child crying out from the flames behind him: What would he have done?
“I can’t imagine it. On one hand you’ve got your family. But then, it’s a little girl,” McDonald said as he wiped his eyes. “I don’t know, man.”
But 19-year-old Lucas Silverio did know. It’s why he died Wednesday.
The Bronx teen went into cardiac arrest, with more than 80% of his body covered in third-degree burns, three days after he rescued Yasleen McDonald, France McDonald’s daughter, from an apartment fire June 9 in the Bronx, a borough of New York City. She died one day later.
The tragedy, and Silverio’s heroism, have captivated New York City and left many astonished at the selflessness of the teenager.
But to those who knew Silverio, nothing about what he did was surprising.
“He had such an immense heart, so full of love,” his second cousin, Jesse Alvarez, said. “Knowing who he was — there’s no way he was going to leave that kid behind.”
To his girlfriend, cousins, friends, uncles and high school classmates, altruism and compassion were Silverio’s trademarks.
“The first word that comes to my mind is ‘kind,’” said his girlfriend, Yamilet Rosario.
Rosario thought of the time she scolded Silverio after he had given money to a panhandler on the subway, for what seemed like “the hundredth time in a row.” Or how annoyed she would get when a stranger would stop Silverio on the street and he would always — always — stop and listen, no matter how ridiculous the conversation.
“I didn’t know a person could be so good,” she said. “Things like this, they shouldn’t happen to good people. This should have been avoided.”
There is no official word on what started the fire June 9 in the Twin Parks complex that killed two and injured 11.
The blaze, which began about 2 a.m., started between the 14th and 16th floors, near the apartment’s trash compactor, according to the New York City Fire Department. The fire marshal is investigating the cause.
Earlier that night, the Silverio family — Silverio, his mother, several aunts, a grandmother and a cousin, Jeury Martinez, among others — had gathered inside a 15th-floor apartment to celebrate Silverio’s younger brother’s confirmation as a Roman Catholic, Alvarez said.
After the celebration ended, Silverio showered. It was while he was in the bathroom that he heard his mother shouting about a fire, according to Alvarez. He quickly exited the shower and attempted to dress. “No time!” his mother yelled before telling him to just wrap with a towel and get out.
By the time Silverio left the bathroom, most of the family had begun the trek through the smoky corridors and down the winding 15-floor stretch of stairwell. Silverio joined his cousin, who was escorting their grandmother to safety.
“It was pandemonium,” said Kina Laws, a Twin Parks tenant who lives below Silverio’s family on the 14th floor. “Pure chaos.”
It was somewhere between the 12th and 14th floor, while escorting his grandmother, that the teenager heard the cries of 3-year-old Yasleen.
It is unclear how Yasleen, who McDonald said was in the apartment with her mother and other relatives, became isolated.
“At that moment Lucas told Jeury, ‘Take grandma downstairs, I’m going to go back and get the little girl,’” Alvarez said. He then turned and went back toward the fire to grab Yasleen.
“He was safe,” said Carlos Mendoza, Silverio’s uncle. He “could have got out of there. He sacrificed himself.”
Soon after the young man located the girl, an explosion knocked him to the floor, disorienting him. The blast awoke Laws on the 13th floor. A number of residents said no sprinklers or alarms went off during the fire.
“I got up and opened my door, and the smoke came into my apartment so quick and so thick I couldn’t breathe,” Laws said. She grabbed her 4-year-old daughter, wrapped her in a bath towel and began their escape.
On the 12th-floor landing came a scene of horror.
“There was a naked man bleeding and his skin was falling off,” Laws said. “And I saw another man trying to help him up.”
Laws said she tried to convince the man, Martinez, to leave the burned teenager. “He was trying to drag him and I just thought — looking at how bad it was — that he might make it worse,” she recalled. “I thought we should go and get help.”
But he refused to leave his cousin. The two had always been inseparable, friends said. They were best friends, born one week apart.
Scared by the chaos and worried for her daughter, Laws said she was too nervous to stay and try to convince Martinez to come along. So she kept moving.
“I had to step over him,” she said. “I wanted to help. God I wanted to help, but I had my daughter.”
She exited the building, and, soon after, so did Martinez and the critically injured Silverio and Yasleen.
Alvarez has been the sole public spokesman for the family since the tragedy, and has also been spearheading fundraising efforts to assist with Silverio’s funeral costs.
For two days, Silverio’s family sat by his side in the hospital as he slipped in and out of consciousness, fueling him with words about how the tale of his heroism had spread.
“In a week you’ll be out of this,” Rosario told her boyfriend as he was unconscious. “And you’ll see: Everybody thinks you’re a hero.” She made plans for how the two would spend her birthday on June 19 together.
Silverio was studying at Bronx Community College to become a physical therapist, his cousin said.
“We were like brothers. I loved that kid so much,” Alvarez said. “This is total devastation.”
Alvarez, who has acted as a kind of ambassador between the two families, first met McDonald at Yasleen’s funeral Thursday, one day before Silverio’s funeral, which took place Friday afternoon.
With embraces and tears, the two families, bonded by tragedy, waded through the pain together.
They celebrated, too.
“Lucas, he’s a hero. No other way to put it,” McDonald said emphatically. He then paused.
“What clicked in his head to go save my little girl?” he asked.
“It wasn’t his head,” answered McDonald’s younger brother, Paris, who had been standing nearby.
“It was his heart. That was all heart.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.