National News

Soldier Who Died Saving People From Bronx Fire Is Hailed at His Funeral

Posted February 17, 2018 8:09 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — When the deadliest fire in New York City in more than 25 years ripped through the apartment building where Pfc. Emmanuel Mensah lived, he made a choice.

Instead of escaping unharmed to live out his life as a newly minted soldier and U.S. citizen, Mensah, 26, went back inside to rescue his neighbors, ultimately paying with his life. He was among the 13 victims of the December fire, including five members of a family rooted in Jamaica, five other immigrants from his native Ghana, a woman from Puerto Rico and her infant granddaughter. The blaze was started by a 3-year-old boy playing with a stove.

On Saturday, a white hearse bearing a picture of his smiling face in the rear window carried him to the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in the Bronx, where it was met by a line of soldiers offering their salute. Bagpipers played “Amazing Grace,” while on a nearby corner, two fire trucks hoisted an American flag over the center lanes of East 187th Street.

The soldier’s father, Kwabena Mensah, and four siblings were among the mourners looking on as his light blue coffin, draped in an American flag, was taken inside the church, where the flag was temporarily replaced with a white cloth.

The pews of the church were filled with firefighters and members of the Army, Navy and Marines, as well as rows of schoolchildren and weeping members of the general public. Also in attendance, quietly, was at least one of the people whose lives Mensah saved.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, tried to console them all, noting that Mensah had lived up to his name, Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

“In the selfless valor, the instinctive willingness to sacrifice and give his all,” he said, “Emmanuel Mensah was ‘God with us,’ reminding us of the most noble calling of the human person, to give ourselves in sacrifice and love to others.”

Mensah lived on the third floor of the building at 2363 Prospect Ave. in the Belmont neighborhood with his father’s friend Nana Yartel, Yartel’s wife and the couple’s four children. The private was asleep in his bedroom when one of the children alerted their parents to the smell of smoke.

After ushering the family to safety at the back of the apartment, Mensah left through the front door and removed four people from the building. He was found on the fourth floor, overcome by smoke.

Days later, the Army posthumously awarded Mensah the Soldier’s Medal, its highest honor for heroism outside of combat, and New York state awarded him its Medal of Valor. “His courageous and selfless act in the face of unimaginable conditions are consistent with the highest traditions of uniformed service,” the citation on the state medal reads.

Despite his heroism, the military said federal rules prohibited it from paying for Mensah’s funeral because he did not die in the line of duty and had not accumulated enough active-duty service. His family was forced to rely on private donations to cover the cost, his father said.

“He did what he was supposed to do,” Kwabena Mensah said in an interview. “I just want to share with people, to see how honorable my son is.”

In her eulogy, Mensah’s aunt, Sheri Kommey, 36, recalled the awful anxiety the family felt the day after the fire, when her nephew’s whereabouts was still unknown, before the tragic details of his heroism were discovered.

“The darkest day of our lives was the day after the fire, you were nowhere to be found,” Kommey said, fighting to keep her composure. “Your sense of duty makes you a very special person.”

Fred Kojo Kyeremeh, a staff sergeant with the Massachusetts National Guard, came to the church and later to the cemetery with around a dozen Ghanaian-American military personnel. Though they did not know Mensah personally, because he had graduated from the military academy so recently, they knew of him in life and in legend in death.

“He embodied the true meaning of a citizen soldier,” Kyeremeh said. “We not only fight enemies abroad, we protect our neighborhoods from danger. Private 1st Class Emmanuel Mensah is a true American hero.”

Kyeremeh said it had been important for his group to attend the funeral, particularly after President Donald Trump reportedly made remarks disparaging West African countries.

“The military is not strong just because of our weapons,” he said. “It’s also the quality of our people. So immigrants should be welcome to America. We are all important.”

Mensah was born on May 11, 1991, in Accra, the capital of Ghana on the West African coast. When he was 12, his mother, Beatrice Owusu, died in childbirth. His father, who was living in the United States, sent him to live with a friend’s family so he could finish school.

In Ghana, Mensah studied engineering and sought to continue his education in the U.S. military. But his father objected to military service.

“In America, when I came here, they said education is the key,” said Kwabena Mensah, who came to the United States in 1984. “I was trying to put in his head: Go to school and become a top man.”

He brought his son to the United States in 2012, and soon after, Mensah began leaving their apartment early in the morning and returning in the evening. He kept it up for a few months before revealing his intention to join the Marines.

He needed his father’s assistance to get a driver’s license, but Kwabena Mensah refused to help. Frustrated, Mensah took a job handling baggage for American Airlines at La Guardia Airport, where he worked from 2013 until 2017, when he left to join the Army.

On his son’s second attempt, Kwabena Mensah relented and Mensah enlisted in the New York Army National Guard in December 2016. On Sept. 21, 2017, he became a U.S. citizen, taking his oath at a military base in Georgia, his father said.

At the time of the fire, he was home on break after completing his advanced training to be a wheeled vehicle mechanic. He was scheduled to start drilling with the 107th Military Police Company at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn in January.

After the funeral Mass, Mensah’s body was taken to Woodlawn Cemetery for burial. Soldiers tapped five flags over his coffin, one at a time, before giving them to his father and four siblings: Bernold Anno Mensah, Vannessa Anno Mensah, Gloria Anno Mensah and Edem Mends.

An employee at the funeral home presented a blanket with Mensah smiling in his dress uniform to Kwabena Mensah. She placed it on his lap, but he immediately draped it around his shoulders and hugged himself.

A caption on the blanket read, “May the works I’ve done speak for me.”