‘Hero’ Died in Ida Flood While Trying to Help Save Neighbors

Rebecca Panico

nj.com

(MCT)

Duteche Aine was speaking to a stranger who picked up his mother-in-law’s phone.

“Help us, help us!” Shakia Garrett shouted on the phone as the Elizabeth River flooded his in-laws’ apartment in Oakwood Plaza last Wednesday night as Tropical Storm Ida hit.

Aine had never met or spoken to Garrett, 33, but he was now giving her instructions to try to save the lives of his wife’s mother, father and brother. Garrett lived in the housing complex and sought shelter at Rosa Espinal and Jose Torres, Sr.’s apartment while their adult son, Jose “Blady” Torres, visited.

Garrett didn’t know the Torres family, their relatives said, but she was desperately trying to save them now.

“Despite all the stuff that was going on around her, she kept fighting for herself and she kept fighting for them,” Aine said. “So I don’t want you guys to forget her. She’s my hero. She’s my hero because she fought with them.”

The family members and friends recounted the story Friday night during a vigil at the housing complex in memory of Garrett and the three members of the Torres family. Though it’s not clear exactly how and when Garrett entered the Torres’ apartment that night, mourners said she spent the last minutes of her life fighting to survive and to save those around her.

Throughout it all, Garrett tried to console Espinal, 72, and Jose Torres, 74. She shouted instructions to their son, 38-year-old Blady Torres, that she was receiving from Aine and his wife, Margarita Torres.

Blady Torres was trying to break the ceiling for more headspace. It was a futile attempt to buy more minutes of oxygen while Margarita Torres called emergency responders. It’s unclear exactly when responders arrived, but the fire house right across the street from the complex had evacuated earlier in the night because it, too, was flooded.

Jose Torres’ daughter also spoke on the phone with Garrett as she called the fire department. Garrett told Margarita Torres toward the end of the 45-minute call that she could no longer see her parents.

The waters had consumed them. Even though they assumed the worst, Aine and his wife kept giving instructions to Garrett in the hopes they could at least save her.

“For me, at least if Kia survived, we did something good,” Margarita Torres said as her voice shook. “Kia was giving up and she said nobody is coming. I said no, no Kia. They told us that the firemen is outside — the fire department is outside. You can do this. You can stay alive. You can do this.”

The phone eventually cut out. Garrett and the Torres family members are four of the 29 people in New Jersey who died due to the storm.

Garrett’s family is still grappling to understand her death. She lived in one of the newer townhomes toward the back of the complex. It’s steps away from the Elizabeth River, which FEMA deemed a regulatory floodway.

Flooding at low-income apartments is nothing new in New Jersey. NJ Advance Media reported less than a year ago that as many as 1,640 affordable housing units in New Jersey are vulnerable to coastal flooding at least once per year. That’s about 1% of the state’s affordable housing stock, the highest of any state in the nation.

Garrett was one of nine siblings, her relatives said. She had just moved to Oakwood Plaza — known to residents who live there as Pierce Manor — a year ago after moving from her mom’s home in Roselle.

“She was an open person. A beautiful heart,” said Khadija Naim, who became friends with Garrett when they attended Wilday Junior High School in Roselle. “That’s why she picked the medical field because she loved helping people.”

Garrett had been working as a home health aide and was also an Uber driver. She lived in Oakwood Plaza with her dog.

The loss of Garrett was just another blow to her family. Her sister, Alissa Green, lost her son in a fire a few years ago. Garrett gave Green her first outfit after she lost their home in the blaze.

“She was always with the kids,” Green reminisced in between tears. “She loved the kids. She made sure my nieces and nephews were good.”

Garrett’s mother sobbed as her family consoled her and hymns were sung. She previously told NJ Advance Media that her daughter didn’t know how to swim.

Hassana Smith-Thomas, Garrett’s cousin, helped organize the vigil at Oakwood Plaza. But she didn’t want to have to release balloons in Garrett’s honor her Friday night.

She just wished she was still alive.

“Kia did not die in vain,” Smith-Thomas said. “Kia died doing what she did best, giving. Kia gave her life for three neighbors she didn’t know.”

A wake for Garrett will be held Wednesday at 9 a.m. at the Second Macedonia Baptist Church on Fairmount Avenue in Elizabeth. Visitation for the Torres family will be held on Sunday in Linden.

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Rebecca Panico may be reached at rpanico@njadvancemedia.com.

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