Second victim dies in wake of Great Barrington fire

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GREAT BARRINGTON — A blaze that ravaged a Silver Street apartment Monday night has claimed a second victim.

The Berkshire District Attorney's Office announced Wednesday that Susan Romano, 67, died of her injuries Tuesday night at Albany Medical Center in New York. Her husband, Michael Romano, 68, was pronounced dead at the scene Monday. 

In a statement, the DA's office further said that investigators believe the fire to be accidental, but that the investigation is ongoing.In the days after the fire, friends and neighbors of the couple had begun reminiscing about Michael Romano, a former bouncer who always wanted to write and a man who smiled through his pain.

 One called him a "gentle warrior with a quiet strength" — a man whose tender yet strong presence could calm angry and violent teenagers.

But he never did any of it through fear or the brute power of his 300 pounds.

"The man just had a natural ability," said Randy Weinstein, his closest friend for 40 years and supervisor at the now-closed Kolburne School in New Marlborough. The two worked there before it closed in 2012. He said Susan Romano had taught the students basic life skills like cooking and making beds. 

Weinstein, who had spent time with Romano the day he died, said that Romano used his love of fishing to heal the wounded.

"His therapy was fishing," Weinstein said of Romano's work at the school with troubled inner-city youths and those with psychiatric issues. "He would take the most difficult kids on the planet fishing and they would come back transformed. All the anger, they left behind on the riverside."

Romano was described as a kindhearted spirit who, though in debilitating pain and mostly confined to a wheelchair, went out of his way to express his care and passions, and cared for his wife. He and his wife did not have children.

 The couple were pulled from their burning apartment after a quick response from firefighters who received the call about 7:40 p.m. Monday and knocked the fire down in about five minutes. 

Both were found in the bedroom, and Michael was found in his wheelchair when firefighters pulled the couple out, town Fire Chief Charles Burger said. Neither the causes of death nor the origin of the fire has yet been released by the Office of the State Fire Marshal. 

Burger and neighbor Chris Dolby say that the unit's hard-wired smoke detector never activated. Burger said that each of the one-story apartments in the 66-unit complex, which was built in 1972, has one detector in the hallway outside the bedroom, as per code during that year.

He said Beech Tree management had replaced all the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in 2017, and that it's possible for tenants to disable them.

 The morning after the fire, Dolby was standing outside a charred opening in the exterior of the Romanos' apartment, unsure why the alarm didn't sound. Dolby said the "banging" sounds coming from the apartment next door initially sounded like what she knew as Romano's falling as he tried to get out of bed and into the wheelchair.

But the "banging" sound lasted longer.

"This banging was different. It was all over the place," Dolby said, standing with another neighbor. Dolby, who went to check on the couple in what is the eight-unit "E" building at the rear of the complex, stepped outside and into an "orange fog" and saw flames licking the walls of their unit. She called police, but by the time firefighters arrived, the Romanos' apartment already was engulfed.

"When the firefighters came, I just kept screaming, `There's two people in wheelchairs in there — please get them out,' but they couldn't get near it for a few minutes," she said.

'A gentle warrior'

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Dolby said Michael Romano was a generous man.

"He never complained about anything, and he would never ask for anything," Dolby said, noting that she always helped him bring his groceries in, since he and his wife used a wheelchair. "I would just have to sense it and I'd go over and do it."

Dolby, who lived next door to the couple for five years at Beech Tree Commons off Silver Street, said Michael Romano always would repay her kindness. 

"He'd always give me something for Christmas, even though he has nothing," she said. "I live paycheck to paycheck."

Dolby said that the couple had lived at Beech Tree for 30 years. According to his biography in Our Berkshire Times magazine, for which he wrote 14 columns, the couple moved here to work at the school. Michael Romano also had been chef at the former Jug End Barn Resort in Egremont and the Blackberry River Inn in Norfolk, Conn.

Weinstein said Romano was a "master chef" who also would pull together his young charges at the school to bake for the holidays and then distribute the treats to seniors in nursing homes. 

"No one ever asked him to do that," Weinstein said. "There was no overtime. But never once did we say no."

Dolby said that Michael Romano did all the shopping and everything for the household and his wife, who suffered from a condition that made her very frail.

 But the couple also exercised at the Berkshire South Regional Community Center.

"He'd work on his legs and she'd walk on the treadmill," she said.

Romano loved to garden.

"He liked his hot peppers," Dolby said. "He liked to cook spicy hot food."

Weinstein said that Susan Romano also was an excellent cook. 

Michael Romano wrote about cooking, gardening and fishing for Housatonic-based Our Berkshire Times, said Publisher Kathy Regan.

 "We loved his work," she said, noting his ingenuity in the way he set up his garden so he could do it in his wheelchair. "He had such a fantastic outlook on life. He loved life. He didn't let being in a wheelchair stop him."

Regan said she plans to immediately make his articles available from the magazine's homepage.Weinstein said that on the day Michael Romano died, the two spoke for an hour about Romano's writing. He also was working on a cookbook that was shaped like a fish.

Weinstein said that Romano was a strong man in so many ways. "He was a guy who could literally pick up a car," he said.  But he also had another kind of fortitude.

"He'd always have a smile on his face, and I'd always seen him in a bundle of pain," Weinstein said. "Nothing could knock him down. He was noble — a gentle warrior."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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