Though police have not yet released the names of the two victims who died in a structure fire a week ago “pending identification,” more than 50 residents gathered at the Dream Center in Rutland at noon Saturday to share stories and honor Paul Durkee and Shane Huntington.
“This is amazing,” said Paul’s brother Michael Durkee. “So many people loved him. If this were a pie chart, this wouldn’t even be a slice.”
Event organizer, sculptor and stone-worker Nick Santoro welcomed guests out of the stormy weather and into a warm room where hot coffee and platters overflowing with cookies and doughnuts awaited.
“By giving people an opportunity to look into each other’s eyes, and for many disenfranchised people to be able to honor their friend by being here and being able too talk to their friends, it helps to change people from cardboard figures into human beings,” Santoro said.
A small altar to the left of the doorway was illuminated with small, white candles around a vase of silk flowers. Photographs of the victims were provided by friends and family.
“What I really want to say is what Jesus and Buddha said,” Santoro said to the people who filled every seat, with some leaning on walls and huddled in groups on the floor. “‘I am you and you are me.’ We need to keep in mind that these invisible people — all these people have histories and lives.”
Santoro called for the “next phase of Project Vision,” after his recent work with Missy Delahanty at PEG TV as part of an effort to transform “Bum’s Alley” into a pop-up garden where anyone could come and reap a bounty of free vegetables and flowers.
Santoro’s initiative was what led him to Huntington, whom he met at “Bum’s Alley” just four days before his death. He said he would help Huntington connect with employers to help improve his situation.
“I’ve lived in this area since 2001, and over that time, we’ve seen homelessness multiply. Project Vision really addressed a lot of issues and did a lot of work with blighted houses, but a lot of the people I met this summer, most of those guys want to work,” Santoro said.
Michael Durkee said the defamation of his brother’s character was what continued to plague him.
“On one hand, I can sit here and talk for days about my brother and Shane,” Durkee said. “I’m sick of the rumors … the detective told me they died from smoke inhalation.”
Audience members were invited to stand and offer memories of the two men, and several commented on Durkee’s wit or Huntington’s kind nature.
“I knew Paul,” said friend Kyle Woodard. “He was wise, but a smart-aleck kind of guy. He loved his music, always had some kind of information, but he was always sarcastic about it. He was definitely one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met.”
Santoro said he was informed by Rutland County’s spiritual leaders that there are hundreds of people in homeless “encampments” around the city.
But Paul Durkee wasn’t homeless, said John Raymond LaFerriere, who claimed to be Durkee’s best friend.
“This all seems like a bad dream,” LaFerriere said. “They would always let me in. They’d always give me a place to stay.”
LaFerriere said he and Paul created a playlist together, and after calls from the audience to “Play it! Play it!” a lilting country song filled the room, drawing tears from many, some of whom sang along.
“I was a 14-year-old fat kid,” LaFerriere said. “We would all play basketball together. He’d still called me ‘little doughboy’ ... there was a time when Paul and I, when we went our separate ways, we’d always say ‘I love you, brother.’”
Dream Center owner Linda Justin offered a biblical passage, citing the torments of Christ and how he was cut off from the world.
“The punishment that brought us peace, was on him,” Justin said. “He was oppressed and afflicted, and he didn’t open his mouth. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?”
“These guys are our family,” Justin said. “I knew the men for coming in here. They were both very quiet, respectful and grateful, but that’s everyone that comes in here.”
The Dream Center serves free meals three times a week from 12:30 to 2 p.m., and every day from January through March. Meals are open for all to come and find connection, Justin said.
“There’s been such a breakdown of society,” Justin said. “Today, everyone is isolated. They’re on their cellphones, going their own way. When someone has a problem or an issue they have no one to talk to. It’s gone. There’s a spiral downward from that … every human needs to know that they’re loved and valued, and that’s missing.”
Mayor David Allaire also attended Saturday’s event.
“I wanted to honor and pay respect to the family of those deceased,” Allaire said. “I think this is a continuation of how Project Vision succeeded in bringing the community together … and if anyone has ideas, we’re always welcome to hear that.”
Though LaFerriere said he hadn’t smiled since Paul’s passing, a small grin came over his face as he remembered his friend.
“Paul would say, ‘It’s just another day,’” LaFerriere said of their day on Saturday.