“Observances — these things extend not just in life, but they carry on into death,” Ms. Hutson said.
Age, too, was a complicating factor: without any identification or little previous medical history, the children posed a particular challenge. “Kids don’t have all the records,” like fingerprints or dental records, that adults may have, Ms. Hutson said.
After the flames subsided and the fatal smoke dissipated, a new horror crept in: Other residents, family members and friends were left unsure about the status of loved ones. Hours rolled by, and many people across New York and Gambia spent hours in excruciating limbo, unsure who was alive or dead.
Some families called every hospital in the area, searching for missing relatives. Others visited on foot, desperate for answers.
Aid workers at Monroe College, which is serving as a temporary emergency response center, have been relying on an unofficial list of the dead, injured, missing and displaced, compiled by a local community board member. He has tried to write down the names, contact information and needs of every person who shows up at the college, in an ad hoc intake list.
Gathering information is hard, in part because of language barriers, said Abdoulaye Cisse, a community outreach worker for CAIR-NY, a group that advocates for Muslims. Some residents speak English, but others speak only various combinations of French and the many languages of West Africa.
Fears of immigration authorities linger among some undocumented residents. And some families, he said, are deeply private or are in shock and not ready to talk about their situation.