PORTLAND, Maine — Across the street from the charred foundation left by the fire that killed Steven Summers, his young daughters twirled in bright Halloween costumes, drawing great, shimmering bubbles that hung in the afternoon sun.
Bolstered by candy and their gathered family and friends, Audryn, 7, and Maliyah Summers, 5, played and laughed with other children at an event marking the anniversary of Maine’s deadliest fire in decades. The girls seemed happy at the Sunday memorial in Longfellow Park, but the past week was hard for them, their mother, Ashley Summers, said.
After two years, they had finally learned the specifics of their dad’s death.
Steven Summer died three days after the fire as a result of his burns.
The events that led up to his and and five other young adults’ deaths in a 2014 fire at 20 Noyes St. have been investigated by police officers and medical examiners. They’ve been pored over by teams of lawyers, judges and journalists, replayed through computer models and recalled during dozens of hours of sworn testimony in the manslaughter trial of landlord Gregory Nisbet.
But for Audryn and Maliyah, the details of their father’s death remained largely a mystery until the day that the man charged with killing him was acquitted.
“The day we found out the verdict, that morning, I heard them scream, ‘Daddy!’ And I jumped up like he walked in the house, because the way they said it, it was as if someone was there,” said Ashley Summers. “And then they came in and just had the newspaper, and tears, and were saying, like adults, ‘We want details. What happened?’”
It’s not that the Summers girls were kept in the dark.
“They knew that their dad died from an accident, which is true,” Ashley said. But in the wake of the fire, with her daughters still too young to read, Summers did what many parents do in the face of tragedy: She tried to shelter her children until they could build the skills to cope.
Unlike David Bragdon Jr., 27; Ashley Thomas, 29; Nicole Finlay, 26; Maelisha Jackson, 23; and Chris Conlee, 25; the 29-year-old Summers did not die inside 20 Noyes St. on the night of the fire. Alone among the victims, he escaped.
It is unclear whether Summers ran through the burning front door or threw himself from a window as the house was engulfed. But before firefighters and medics arrived, others who made it out by jumping from a second-story window found him lying in the street, still on fire. He died three days later in the hospital.
Audryn and Maliyah were 5 and 3 years old at the time, and at at the advice of therapists, their mother decided that the girls weren’t ready to know everything. They wouldn’t be able to process it. So over the past two years, even as she has organized memorials, advocated for better fire safety and waded through complex court proceedings, Summers tried to protect her girls while making sure they learned lessons they’d need to confront the truth.
“We’ve been trying to teach them, you know, fire can be good, fire can be bad,” said Summers. “But without giving them full details on what happened to their dad.”
This fall, with Nisbet’s trial approaching and discussion of the tragedy appearing again in the news, she knew the story was going to come out. And now that Audryn can read, Summers began to think about how to handle the questions when they came.
“I kept telling myself what I was going to say, what I was going to do, and then it comes and … how do you tell these two little people who are just so innocent, so naive to the world, how do you find the words to tell them how their dad died?” she said.
In the days since they found out, Audryn and Maliyah have handled it differently, according to their mother. Maliyah wanted to know everything right away and cried on the spot. But Audryn “is more like me … she kinda keeps it to herself,” Summers said.
The week and a half since the trial ended have been hard and hectic for the Summers family. The girls have been spending time with counselors and there is more mourning to come.
On the anniversary of her husband’s death, the whole family gets together, Summers said. In years past the girls have released balloons and the adults have taken shots of vodka — Steven’s drink of choice.
But at the Sunday memorial Audryn and Maliyah seemed happy. Dressed as the Mad Hatter and Batwoman, they chased other children through the park and marveled at bubbles as big as them.
For their mom, the girls knowing comes as a sort of relief. Because it’s not only her daughters whom Ashley Summers has been protecting these past years. Organizing memorials and attending Portland’s fire-safety task force, Summers said she has kept busy to keep her own grief at bay and ensure that she can support the people who need her.
“You kinda put yourself in this driving mode to protect your own emotions … and then as the years pass that kinda starts falling away and suddenly the emotion is there,” she said. “I’ve been starting to deal with that more now that I’ve gotten my kids to where they need to be.”