LOWELL -- The seventh victim of the devastating fire at 77-85 Branch St. that killed four adults and three children was publicly identified by family members on Saturday as 72-year-old Robert Downs.
Downs, a Dracut native, was a well-liked building-maintenance manager who worked at various locations around the city, according to his older brother, Ronald Downs, of Dracut.
Prior to earning his living as an independent handyman, Bob Downs worked for several years at the former Prince Macaroni factory in Lowell, his 73-year-old brother said.
Bob "thoroughly enjoyed" his occupation, and reputation as the No. 1 go-to handyman, fixer-upper and builder for his family and friends, most of all for his 91-year-old mother, Helen Downs of Dracut..
"He really enjoyed doing work for our mom, and he did a lot," said Ronald Downs. "The last thing was a garden shed on her lawn that he was working on, but hadn't quite finished yet. I told her I'll have to come down and finish it up."
Per his daily routine, Ron Downs said he awoke to a TV news broadcast on Thursday and watched some reports about the Branch Street fire before heading to his job at a machine shop, unaware it was his brother's apartment building. It was only later in the day when his mother phoned with the news that it was Bob's building that burned, and that his brother had perished.
Ron Downs said his brother had been living in the same apartment and splitting the bills with three roommates, including Tina Christakos, who was the sixth Branch Street fire victim to be identified.
"What we think happened was the girl (Christakos) had this little dog she loved, and she went back in to get it, and he went with her," Ron Downs said. "And they didn't make it out."
As previously reported, also killed in the fire was a family of five: parents Thorn Sak and Ellen Vuong, and three of their five children, Anthony Sak, 12, Ryan Sak, 9, and Sayuri Sak, 7.
Robert Downs was born in Lawrence on March 21, 1942, the third of Helen and late husband Raymond Downs' four children, along with Ron, and older and younger sisters, Beverly Downs of Dracut and Sharon Russell, of Florida.
The Downs kids grew up on Methuen Street in Dracut, "right by the Kenwood School, which used to be our grandfather's cow pasture," said Ron Downs.
"We did a lot of hunting, (and) spent a lot of time fishing in the Merrimack River. Of course, the neighborhood wasn't built up like it is now," Ron Downs said.
The boys also enjoyed time shared at the family's summer vacation place in Maine, he said.
The Downs siblings remained close through childhood, going their separate ways only after each got married. They saw Bob rarely after that, Ron Downs said. His brother did not attend family functions, which was the main reason no requested photo of his brother could be found after the fire, even as his obituary was headed for publication in The Sun, Ron Downs said.
In addition to his mother, Bob is survived by two sons, Robert F. Downs, Jr. and his wife, Carol of Millinocket, Maine, and Scott Downs of Lowell; a brother, Ronald Downs of Dracut; two sisters, Beverly Downs of Dracut and Sharon Russell of Florida; several nieces, nephews, cousins and friends.
Downs said the authorities informed the family that dental records -- or lack thereof-- and a physical description of his brother were all that were required to identify him at the corner's office in Boston, sparing family members from having to view his charred remains.
"Bob had all his teeth pulled out -- he didn't like his false teeth so he didn't wear them," said Ron. "He was about 6 feet, average build. A lot of people knew him by his beard, and his long hair that he wore in a ponytail."
Despite the family's already having made funeral arrangements, Bob Downs body had not been released by the coroner's office as of Saturday, his brother said.
"We're dealing with it, trying to get a final resolution, and put him to rest," said Ron. "Bob was a very likable guy. Everyone's going to miss him, my mom especially. Me too, because now I'm going to have to pick up the slack, but I can't pick it all up, with all that he did for her."
The Downs family planned to keep the funeral service private. For those wishing to honor Bob, the obituary stated that donations in his name could be made to: Lowell General Hospital Cancer Center, 295 Varnum Ave., Lowell, MA 01854.
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