When fire fighters pulled Safyre Terry’s father from the ashes, she was underneath him — buried in his arms and still alive.
It was an early May morning in 2013 when, investigators said, an arsonist set fire to the family’s apartment stairwell in Schenectady, N.Y., not far from Albany. Safyre, then 5, lost her father, her younger sister and two younger brothers in the blaze.
Safyre was severely burned over the majority of her body. She lost the skin on her face, the toes on her left foot, her entire right hand and, later, the rest of her left foot, her aunt said.
“Doctors were just making her comfortable until she passed away,” her aunt and legal guardian, Liz Dolder, 43, told The Washington Post. “She wanted to live.”
Safyre is now 8 and is preparing to celebrate Christmas without her immediate family — and she has asked strangers for help.
Dolder posted a message on Facebook over the weekend asking people to send Christmas cards for Safyre to hang on a card tree.
“Everything is magical,” the aunt said. “I went to Goodwill and bought a Christmas card tree. And she helped me put it up. When we got our first Christmas card, she was so excited. … It was just incredible.”
Dolder said Safyre turned to her and declared: “I can’t wait to fill it all up.”
And Dolder told her: “Honey, I don’t think we’re going to end up filling that.”
But when Dolder posted a photo online showing Safyre with the card tree, her friends came through.
Safyre’s supporters have since launched an Imgur campaign to “make this little girl’s Christmas wish come true.” Dolder said so far she has collected close to 50 cards from the mailbox.
Dolder posted one of the letters on Facebook:
I’m sure you have no idea who I am, but I recently saw your story on Imgur, and it immediately stuck with me. You are a beautiful girl, and you deserve all the happiness in the world.
Your outlook on life makes me smile, and your undefeatable attitude is what makes humans amazing.
“It’s so overwhelming,” Dolder said, sobbing. “I’m crying buckets, because when you’ve seen the ugly in the world, and then you see the world come together for her, it’s just more than words can say. I’m so moved.”
On May 2, 2013, authorities said, someone doused an apartment stairwell with gasoline and set it ablaze. The fire spread to the family’s apartment and killed Safyre’s father, David Terry, 32; her 3-year-old sister, Layah; her 2-year-old brother, Michael; and her 11-month-old half-brother, Donovan Duell.
“The firefighters found her father, and when they tried to lift him up, she was underneath him — cuddled into his arms,” Dolder said of Safyre. “That is the reason why she lived.”
A suspect, Robert Butler, was charged in June 2013 with federal arson in U.S. District Court but the charges were later dropped, said Grant Jaquith, first assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of New York.
No one else has been charged with arson in the case, Jaquith said, explaining that it is still an ongoing investigation.
Jaquith said another man, Edward Leon, was convicted last month on two counts of perjury for lying to a federal grand jury about the fire.
Safyre’s mother, Jennica Duell, has also been charged for allegedly lying to a federal grand jury — first claiming she saw who started the fire and then claiming that statement was false, Jaquith said. She is set to go to trial in February.
Duell’s attorney could not be immediately reached for comment.
After the fire, Safyre — who was burned over 75 percent of her body — was put into a drug-induced coma, her aunt said.
“The first moment I saw her, I was not prepared,” Dolder told The Post. “She did not have a face anymore. It was all burned off — all but a small patch on her forehead.”
Over the past two years, Safyre has undergone about 65 surgeries, including one earlier this year to amputate her foot.
“We opted to do it; it was very sensitive,” Dolder said. “She didn’t have a sole left, so when she stepped on something, it was like knives going into her foot. There was no movement — her ankle didn’t bend and her joints were fused together from the fire.
“In order for her to have a better quality of life, she had it removed.”
She is scheduled to undergo more surgery — on her face and neck — next month.
When asked how Safyre survived it all, Dolder said: “Prayers and her sheer will to survive. Her heart was beating strong.”
Dolder and her husband, who have 8-year-old twins, became Safyre’s legal guardians after the deadly fire.
Despite her injuries, Safyre is no different than other second-graders, her aunt said.
“She’s spunky, she’s straightforward, she’s a go-getter,” Dolder said. “She’s determined, very determined.”
Asked what Safyre thought about the cards she has received, her aunt said she is “thrilled.” She posted a photo to prove it.
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