By Bill Parry
Avonte Oquendo was remembered by his mother, Vanessa Fontaine, and a small circle of friends on the first anniversary of his disappearance Saturday. The gathering took place in Hunters Point South Park near where the 14-year-old autistic boy was believed to have entered the water of the East River after he vanished from the Riverview School in Long Island City last Oct. 4.
His body was discovered on the shore of College Point in January. The cause of death has yet to be determined by the medical examiner’s office.
“I’m here to honor him today because he was an amazing kid,” Fontaine said. “And I just want everyone to know that you know he may be a special needs kid, but he is my baby. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him.”
The people who gathered around her under the pavilion of the East River Ferry, barely sheltered from a driving rainstorm, were all united during the exhaustive four-month search for Avonte. Everyone clutched pinwheels with ribbons bearing his name. Pinwheels are a symbol of child safety, according to an organizer.
The family’s lawyer, David Perecman, referred to the storm, saying, ““I think it’s Avonte’s spirit that brought the clouds over us, just like last Oct. 4 was a dark day. The rain is the tears of the angels.”
The volunteers who joined the search last winter seemed undaunted by the storm.
Steve Divers, an MTA bus driver from Bayside said, “We searched during the worst winter this city’s had in many a year. A little rain isn’t going to affect us one bit.”
There were no police present and only one elected official, City Councilman Robert Cornegy (D-Bedford Stuyvesant), who introduced Avonte’s Law. Signed by Mayor de Blasio in August, the law requires the city Department of Education to evaluate the need for alarms on outside doors at all schools and install them where it has deemed them necessary by next spring.
Cornegy told the gathering that it is a more urgent need and the city should “not wait until May 2015, but do it immediately,” he said.
Perecman lamented that the city has not given a nod of recognition by holding someone accountable.
“To date nobody has been disciplined or reprimanded for anything that happened, for the whole confluence of mistakes that brought about Avonte’s loss,” he said.
When it was time for Fontaine to speak, she grew angrier and through tears she said, “Because they didn’t do their jobs I don’t have my son, my baby — because I trusted them and he didn’t come home because they didn’t do their jobs.”
At that moment, she was interrupted by a blast of a horn from the ferry pulling into the landing. Fontaine regrouped and said, “That’s Avonte saying “Go get ‘em, Mom.”
After prayers, poetry readings and a moment of silence the small crowd released 24 white and blue balloons, the most allowed by a city ordinance. The balloons were blown directly over the river where the fog was lifting as the storm passed.
“It was sad to be here, but it was hopeful because Avonte’s family held on, they didn’t crack,” opera singer Wandelle Saavedra said. “The whole time we searched it was magical how many people from all walks of life were compelled to help us. I’ll always remember that.”
The bus driver from Bayside, Steven Divers added, “My son is autistic so the outpouring from the people that helped us really touched my heart. I’ll be down here every year remembering Avonte.”