LOWELL -- As children growing up in Dracut, Robert Downs and his brother, Ronald, were always into some mischief -- getting into scrapes, losing their shoes, exploring too far on unsteady pond ice -- that their mother took to calling them “The Katzenjammer Kids,” after an old comic strip featuring two young pranksters.
“We grew up together hunting, and fishing, and going to Maine,” said Ronald Downs, now 70, and still living in Dracut. “We were always in trouble, we were always up to something.”
Robert Downs, 72, was one of seven people killed early Thursday morning when a 3-alarm fire swept through a Branch Street apartment building in Lowell. Downs’s roommate, Tina Christakos, 38, was also killed, and Ronald Downs said he was told by his brother’s roommates that Robert may have stayed behind to help Christakos rescue her chihuahuas.
“If they hadn’t gone back for the dogs,” he said in a phone interview today, trailing off. “I always say, it’s destiny.”
The deadliest fire in Massachusetts in 20 years, it claimed the lives of five people from one family: Torn Sak, his longtime partner Ellen Vuong, and three of their five children, 7-year-old Sayuri, 9-year-old Ryan, and 12-year-old Anthony. Their other two children escaped.
Downs was the last of the victims to be identified by family. Authorities have not yet officially named the victims, and State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said today that the investigation into the cause of the fire is still ongoing.
“This is a comprehensive investigation,” said Coan. “We are aware that there have been statements made about the possibility of fireworks being in the building. We are aware that issues of the operability of the alarm system have been raised. And that is part of the investigation.”
Thearan Sak, Torn’s brother, has said that Torn Sak had been storing fireworks in his apartment, and authorities and witnesses have reported that an explosion preceded the fire and that it sounded like fireworks detonating.
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A statement from the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office issued Friday called the cause and origin of the fire “undetermined.” A spokeswoman declined to comment further today.
Ronald Downs said his brother was a handyman who visited their 91-year-old mother every Sunday to help her out around the house, installing a sliding door or a window or fixing the toilet.
“She’d feed him and he’d do the work, whatever she needed,” said Ronald Downs. Robert was in the process of building a shed in the back yard when he died, said Ronald. “I think I’m going to have to finish it.”
Robert Downs had two children, said Ronald and Beverly Downs, 66, Robert’s sister. One son, they said, is disabled and lives in a group home, and Robert often took him on Sundays to his mother’s.
“They were close,” said Beverly Downs. “He liked his father.”
Ronald Downs said his brother did not have an easy life. He was divorced, and had trouble keeping a job, but had a good sense of humor. He always loved the outdoors, and once shot an eight-point buck so deep in the Maine woods that it took him a full day to haul it out.
“He liked to drink his beer and sit back and relax,” said Ronald Downs, who said he will always remember hunting and fishing with Robert. “The good times we had together.”
Beverly Downs said she was trying to be strong for her mother, whom she lives with and cares for.
“I’m just hanging on myself,” she said.
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Today, a candle marked “Bobby” sat amid a growing shrine of flowers and stuffed animals across the street from the burned apartment building. Investigators videotaped the wreckage and neighbors stood around the caution tape watching.
On Sunday, a memorial service and fund-raiser will be held at the Glory Buddhist Temple on Cambridge Street at 5:30 p.m., with all the proceeds giong to assist families who were affected.
The Sak family was still trying to make sense of the tragedy that stole five of its members. One of the young boys who died, said Thearan Sak, ran from his bedroom toward his parents’ room instead of toward the door. The two surviving boys barely managed to flee with their grandfather, he said.
“It must have taken a long time for people to realize there was a fire,” said Sak. “As they were running out on the porch, my two nephews, they told me that they see the fire in the hallway out the front entrance... there was no way that they could go down.”
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.