A Venezuelan political refugee’s dreams of freedom and a new life for his loved ones disappeared with the popping sounds of a lithium ion battery on an e-bike.
Rafael Elias Lopez-Centeno, 27, moved into a Bronx apartment with his aunt and uncle this past January, working double-shifts as a deliveryman for local delis in hopes of earning enough cash to bring his girlfriend and her two daughters from their homeland to the city.
His hopes instead disappeared in the smoke of a deadly Monday night fire started by one of the batteries now blamed for five New York City deaths so far this year, with fire officials issuing yet another warning about the potentially lethal scourge.
“He was a wonderful, wonderful person,” the victim’s mourning aunt Zenona Sanchez told the Daily News. “Everybody loved him. He was a very gentle person. He helped a local church deliver donated food … He delivered food by the truckload. He loved to help people.”
And he loved his girlfriend and her children, with his efforts focused on bringing the family to join him in the city. The dream ended when he was pronounced dead on Tuesday afternoon. The blaze was started by a battery for Lopez-Centeno’s e-bike charging near the front door of the apartment, his 58-year-old aunt said.
“He said, ‘I need to do what I need to do,’” Sanchez said. “He wanted to get his girlfriend and her two daughters out.”
Sanchez described Rafael as a political refugee who fled the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro over fears for his life.
“They came to his home and detained him twice,” she recounted. “They said they were going to kill him and his family. He was here seeking asylum.”
The details of Lopez-Centeno’s activism against Maduro were unclear. But the Venezuelan president has been accused by Human Rights Watch of violent crackdowns and torture of opponents. Maduro was indicted in 2020 by the U.S. Justice Department for drug trafficking.
On the night of the fire, Lopez-Centeno was unable to find his way through the smoke and flames, with firefighters eventually discovering him unconscious in the apartment bathroom.
This year’s numbers from the FDNY show an increase in tragedies linked to the batteries: 66 injuries along with the 5 deaths, compared with 79 injuries and 4 deaths in all of 2021.
The FDNY announced that Lopez-Centeno had died in the battery-fueled fire on Wednesday — the same day that a 5-year-old girl and her father’s girlfriend were killed by a different battery fire in an East Harlem apartment.
Sanchez said her husband, 61-year-old Luis Jose Almanzar, welcomed their nephew when he arrived to start the New Year. Sanchez was working at the time of the fire, which also killed her beloved pet rescue cat Petra.
“My husband was sleeping, and he heard ‘pop! pop! pop!’” said Sanchez. “When he opened the door, it was a wall of fire. He was burned in the face. And when he turned to get out on the fire escape, he was burned on the back.
“He couldn’t get my nephew.”
Almanzar was briefly hospitalized after the fire, but escaped without any major health issues. And Sanchez said her nephew’s lifelong desire to help others would be served even in his death: “We just arranged to donate his organs.”