LOCKPORT, N.Y. (WIVB) — The fire that killed Joe Phillips might as well still be burning for his mother Ann.
Fresh wounds were reopened this week, when the juvenile hearing began for the teen who’s charged with helping to set that massive fire, and leaving the 14-year-old Phillips to fend for himself.
Ann says she remembers the evening of Aug. 10, when black smoke enveloped the city’s sky, and incessant sirens wailed in the distance. She said almost immediately, she knew her son was in that building.
“I stepped out on my front porch … and I could see the smoke,” she said. “I can see it to this day, just coming up and around and heading that way, just black smoke. And I freaked. I yelled … he didn’t make it. There’s no way he survived. I knew in my heart that he didn’t survive. I knew it.”
A memorial in her living room in Lockport bears old grade school pictures, and the teen’s ashes she said she’s not yet ready to bury.
Ann adopted Joe when he was 6 years old, having already come from a difficult upbringing. He was removed from his biological mother who lived in Las Vegas because she abused drugs, Ann said. Ann raised him with structure and most of all, love. Any consideration otherwise is wrong.
“I love Joe as one of my own,” she said through tears. “I mean, I couldn’t love him less. I cry everyday. There’s times I don’t even want to wake up. I miss him. I miss everything.”
Everything, she said, and especially the little things.
“He didn’t get to go trick or treating this year,” she said. “Today’s my birthday. I won’t get a text message, ‘Happy birthday, mom.’ It’s like a big hole in my heart is gone. It’ll never heal.”
There’s not a day that goes by that Ann doesn’t relive those initial hours watching the building burn believing her son was inside.
And not a day goes by that she’s not thankful no one else was harmed while fighting the fire.
“I’m looking at the flames and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, please, please don’t let anything happen to these guys,'” she said of first responders. “And I didn’t know how to thank any of (them). It was important for me from day one to thank (them) all. I know in my heart, (they) wouldn’t have been able to save Joe. But I didn’t want another death on my hands.”
Authorities believe Joe and the 14-year-old who’s charged with the crime broke into a storage building at HTI Recycling that evening and started the fire that burned for close to three days.
Ann says her son and the accused teen were not friends, despite prior reports.
She says her son was the subject of constant ridicule, and tried to impress the boys he hung out with. That’s why — she says — he went into that building.
And perhaps the hardest fact to accept — amid the flames, Joe called the boy he was with, and left a message that said he was trapped, and was running out of air.
“The other children involved, they’re going to go on with their lives. Will they feel guilty?” she said. “I question that, because if you’re a ‘friend,’ how do you let your ‘friend’ stay in a burning building, and not say a word?”
The teen is facing 10 charges, including criminally negligent homicide, because law enforcement believe he knew Joe was inside the building, but he failed to tell a police officer or other adult.
The teen is also facing charges of arson, burglary, criminal mischief and criminal trespass. Prosecutors and the teen’s attorney are hopeful for a plea deal — or the family court equivalent — which would likely mean the teen would spend several months in a detention center, rather than several years.
Ann works in the bakery at the Walmart in Lockport.
After the fire, someone from the city called for five sheet cakes that would be used during a ceremony to honor first responders.
Ann said her co-workers kindly tried to hide the order to prevent her from getting upset.
Ann soon found out, and she did get upset.
Then she took out her credit card, and paid for those cakes herself, saying thank you in her own way.