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Lansingburgh neighbors share story of survival, support

Updated: 04/07/2014 10:47 AM
Created: 04/07/2014 12:58 AM WNYT.com
By: Steve Flamisch

TROY - Authorities are still awaiting the results of forensic testing on the body of a pregnant woman found dead after a fire in Lansingburgh on Thursday, police said.

Vanessa Milligan, 19, was nine months pregnant with a baby girl, family members and friends said. Authorities do not know if she was already dead when the fire broke out.

Several witnesses described an explosion, and a man running from the building before the fire. Those reports are still under investigation, police said.

The flames swept through Milligan's building, 271 Fifth Ave., before spreading to 269 Fifth Ave. At least 13 people lost their home and most, or all, of their possessions.

As the investigation continued, the people who lived at 269 Fifth Ave. shared their story with NewsChannel 13 on Sunday.

Jennifer Lavender said the fire destroyed the bedroom of her 4-month-old daughter, Hallie. But, thanks to a quirk, the child was sleeping in a different part of the house.

"Luckily I'd come home late that night, and she'd fallen asleep in the car on the way home," Lavender said. "So I just left her in her car seat, and her car seat was sitting on the couch in the living room."

Lavender, her boyfriend Jeffrey Cook, and their daughter, Hallie, escaped the second floor apartment. Cook's mother, Jennifer Cook, and her husband, Michael MacDonald, exited the first floor unit.

MacDonald, Jeffrey Cook, and Jeffrey's brother, Nicholas - who was visiting at the time - tried to put out the fire, and helped several people to safety.

The family managed to rescue their three dogs and a rabbit, but a hamster is missing. They returned over the weekend to survey the damage, and to board up the house.

"It was difficult," Jennifer Cook said. "You know, you walk in your house that you've lived in just about your entire life, and it's all gone."

Now, they have all moved in with Jennifer Cook's parents, Debbie and Mike Catellier. The family expressed gratitude to the many people who have donated clothing, food, furniture, and money.

"Alot of people we can't tell you about because we don't know who they are: people who are just stopping by, dropping things off," Mike Catellier said.

The previously empty nest now houses seven people (eight when Jennifer Cook's daughter, Katelynn Cook, is home from college; nine when MacDonald's son, Dalton MacDonald, is visiting).

"(We) just had to rearrange the house a little bit," Debbie Catellier said. "Fortunately, we had the space and everybody's safe. And that's where we're very blessed. We have all of them."

And that is Jennifer Lavender's sentiment every time she looks at her little girl, whose room was gutted by the fire.

"I look at my daughter every single day, and thank God she was not sleeping in her bedroom," Lavender said. "They say things happen for a reason. You'd like to believe it."

Lavender's employer, Mariposa Studio, is planning a benefit for the family next weekend. The date, time, and location are still being finalized.

Anyone wishing to donate to the families of 269 Fifth Ave. can make a contribution to Lavender Fund at CAP COM Federal Credit Union, or the Cook-MacDonald Fund at Trustco Bank.

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