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After Nightmare, Singer Continues Chasing A Dream


March 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

PHOTO: Librado Romero/The New York Times

Tony Morales, whose two children died in a fire in his family's Manhattan apartment in 2000, with his son, Antonio Jaydon, born last year.

In a rehearsal studio that could be mistaken for a large walk-in closet, Tony Morales, sandwiched between a conga drummer and a pianist, issued instructions to 10 merengue musicians and two backup singers at a madcap pace, like someone with energy to spare.

Where he confidently led, the musicians followed him, a man completely in charge. Nobody watching would have guessed he was also scared to death.

"Can I do this?" Mr. Morales asked. "Will they like what I do? Will I freak out? I know people are going to back me up, but things have changed."

For Mr. Morales, everything changed the night of Dec. 22, 2000, when a burning candle ignited a Christmas tree in his third-floor apartment in Washington Heights and a roaring fire trapped his wife and two children in a bedroom as he tried to put the blaze out.

Mr. Morales, now 35, and his wife, Lily, 31, were critically burned. Their two children, Savannah, 4, and Juan Antonio Jr., 18 months, died of smoke inhalation.

At the time, Mr. Morales was an up-and-coming merengue singer who had just released his first CD. Now, after more than two years, he is returning to the New York stage. In what is billed as his "comeback debut," Tony Swing, as he is known professionally, is scheduled to perform at the Copacabana nightclub in midtown Manhattan on Friday, singing the happy dance music that originated in the Dominican Republic.

It is only one gig by a singer who has no recording label and no other engagements yet, and who feels like such an underdog, he said, that he is introducing his set with the theme song from "Rocky." But Mr. Morales is being cheered on by friends, relatives and players in New York's Latin music scene, who find his willingness to try again enough cause for celebration.

"I'm grateful for that," said Charles Morris, senior minister at Fort Washington Collegiate Church, where Mr. Morales's daughter attended Sunday school and where the memorial service for the Morales children was held. "Music for him is a calling. It's who he is."

Mr. Morales was born in Puerto Rico of Dominican parents but grew up in Washington Heights. He met his wife in the neighborhood, and they married in 1994. The couple eventually settled down in a two-bedroom apartment on West 181st Street.

On the night of the fire, Mr. Morales said, all four members of the family were in the living room. While the children played, he sat watching television on a sofa, he said, and his wife talked on the telephone with her head on his lap.

Suddenly, a movement of the telephone cord caused a candle atop a CD rack to topple over and set the Christmas tree afire.

Mr. Morales said his first instinct was to try to put the fire out with pots of water. But before he had made two trips to the kitchen the fire had turned the apartment into an inferno.

Firefighters found him near the front door screaming: "My kids! My wife!" He had made an unsuccessful attempt to pry them from the children's bedroom. The firefighters found Mrs. Morales huddled atop her son and daughter with her back burning.

To this day, Mr. Morales said, he believes that he could have saved his children. He knows now that he should have taken his family out of the apartment first, rather than waste time fighting the fire.

"I should have thought clear," he said.

The fire took a terrible physical and emotional toll. Mr. Morales suffered second- and third-degree burns over 30 percent of his body – his face, arms, shoulders and back – and the smoke injured his vocal chords. It left him struggling with operations and physical therapy, wearing a body suit, gloves and a face mask to heal skin grafts, and hiding from damaging sunlight behind sunglasses and layers of clothes.

Still, he threw himself back into merengue as soon as he could. He planned a comeback in 2001, but had to put it off in deference to his mending body.

"When you go on stage, any little thing would bother you," he said at the time. "The lights, sweating. And people don't understand I'm burned, and they're going to hug me and pat me on my back, and somebody might hurt me."

Mrs. Morales, a registered nurse who is still struggling with respiratory problems from smoke inhalation, grieved mostly in private. But Mr. Morales chose to face the public.

On June 14, 2001, he went to Saint Spyridon School in Washington Heights to pick up his daughter's prekindergarten diploma. The graduation ceremony had been dedicated to Savannah – "a very special girl who should be with us today," the program read – and Mr. Morales sat in the front row of the auditorium watching 46 preschoolers in caps and gowns dance and sing.

When the name "Savannah Morales" was called, he walked to the microphone amid a standing ovation.

"It's an honor to be here," he told the audience of fidgeting children and choked-up teachers. "My daughter always liked school – that she didn't get from me. It was one of the things she liked the most."

Mr. Morales, who used to take care of his children during the day while his wife worked, then surprised everyone with a song he had written for his daughter, faltering only once as he sang it a cappella.

The one constant in his arduous journey since his personal tragedy has been music.

Before the fire, Mr. Morales, who worked for years as a backup singer with popular New York merengue bands like Oro Solido, and the New York Band, had just begun a solo career, and this is what he is now trying to revive.

Mr. Morales performs what he calls "aggressive merengue," a fast-paced form that he sings in both English and Spanish. His chances of success looked promising in 2000: his first solo show was at Manhattan Center alongside the legendary Latin band leader Tito Puente, and he had secured a contract with Viva Discos International/Universal.

The cover of his CD – "Por Fin" ("At Last") – showed him striking a sexy pose in a tight black sleeveless shirt, his muscled arms bare, his hands in the pockets of his jeans.

Now his arms and hands are covered with scars. But Mr. Morales, who also has some scarring and discoloration on his face, has come such a long way that he can now jog two miles and then practice his music for three hours straight "at 100 miles per hour," he said.

Although he and his wife moved in 2001 to South Florida, he kept writing songs and coming back to New York to arrange and record them with musician friends. One of his demo singles, "Hit the Dance Floor," has played on Spanish-language radio in New York for the last few months.

"I respect what he is doing, and I feel we should all help him," said Julio Vergara, operations manager for the New York station WCAA-FM (105.9).

About 20 Latin music groups participated in a benefit for the Moraleses that was sponsored by the Copacabana a few days after the fire, raising more than $35,000.

Last week, at the first rehearsals of a band Mr. Morales assembled with old friends and associates from the city's merengue world, Miguel Veloz, 25, a backup singer, said he never doubted Tony Swing would be back.

"I feel he's ready," Mr. Veloz said. "He's better, or if he isn't he doesn't show it in front of us. But he looks like he wants to work. He has something to prove – that he can do it."

Eight months ago, Mr. Morales and his wife welcomed a baby boy, Antonio Jaydon, whom Mr. Morales brought to New York on this visit. They are staying with Lily Morales's family in Manhattan.

"I'm very proud of him," Mrs. Morales said of her husband from Florida, where she stayed because of her hospital job. "I'm happy that he can go back to the public. He's a great performer, and he lives for the music."

The picture of Savannah and Juan Antonio Jr. on a medallion that hangs from their father's neck confirms what the family's relatives say: the baby is the spitting image of his brother. Same round face, same piercing dark eyes, same thin unruly hair, same easy smile.

Life has gone on, a reality that will be reinforced by Mr. Morales' show at the Copacabana on Friday. But Mr. Morales said his pain is still as raw as it was the night of the fire.

"It's two years ago, but I see it every day," he said during a recent interview at a restaurant, where he asked a waitress to remove a candle from the table. "You wake up, and you think, `Another day without them.' "

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