Six-Alarm Fire Sends Residents Fleeing Into The Cold Night
By Miriam Rosenberg
With the temperature hovering around 30 degrees and winds blowing at more than 20 mph, residents of an apartment building on Neilson Street in Far Rockaway fled into the night stopping to watch as their home was destroyed by fire last Saturday night.
The six-alarm fire at 1056 Neilson Street left 129 families, including 46 children homeless. The families have no knowledge of when, or even if, they would be able to return to the six-floor apartment house.
Christine McMillon and her daughters Shanise, (3), and Katie, (1), lived in apartment 6H, above the apartment where many believe the fire started. They were among those who required rescue by firefighters.
"About midnight I saw smoke…I waited [for firefighters] to come to rescue me and my daughters," she said. "We tried to huddle to the floor. I stuck my head out the window to try to compose myself. No one was supposed to be in that apartment [below].
The fire was made even more difficult throughout the night by decreasing temperatures and increasing wind gusts between 25 and 33 mph.
Deputy Chief Bob Maynes explained how the weather affected his firefighters, such as Lt. Steven Sharpe, who helped rescue the McMillons.
"We were facing a very intense fire. It was being fed by the wind and spreading fast," said Maynes. "They took a little extra chance because of the known life hazard, trying to save people. They did a great job."
Among the others who were sent to the hospital was Moritza Sanchez who, along with her husband Reginald Dumont, also lived on the sixth floor.
Alex DeHerrera, 14, lived on the second floor and was watching television with his cousin Jonathan Flores, 14, when the fire started. The cousins returned to the scene Sunday afternoon with the Lacrosse sticks they grabbed on the way out of the apartment because they had a game on Sunday.
"We were watching a movie and I heard an ambulance, and I smelled smoke," said DeHerrera. "I went to my mom's room. My mom asked some questions, and people started leaving at about 12 o'clock."
DeHerrera, his parents and 3-year old brother Joshua were able to go to his cousin's home on Beach 17 Street for shelter.
Although Flores said it only took five minutes for them to get out, DeHerrera told The Wave that "the fire department did not try to evacuate people in the beginning."
Pastor Pierre Gesnat, of the Universal Church of Salvation (located down the block from the apartment building), opened his church to the fire victims.
"We offered them a place to go and asked police and firemen to send people there," said Gesnat. "We gave them socks, hot tea…until the school opened."
Gesnat was referring to Brian Piccolo Middle School, MS 53, which became a reception center for the American Red Cross of Greater New York who provided emergency assistance to those living in the building.
"People were totally panicked. They were in pajamas," said Rebecca Callahan of the Red Cross. "Thankfully, the OEM (Office of Emergency Management) and NYPD got buses to keep them warm while the school heated again because the electricity was off."
OEM had Civilian Emergency Response Team members from Far Rockaway on the scene according to the agency.
During the fire, LIPA turned off electricity to approximately 2,000 customers in the area so fire apparatus wouldn't interfere with electric lines. Power was restored to most people by 9 a.m. on Sunday.
Callahan spoke about neighbors who generously gave of themselves during the tragedy.
"Local neighbors were amazing. They saw what was happening and they opened their doors right away so no one would get frostbite," Callahan said.
According to a representative at the FDNY, the department first received the call for a fire on the fifth floor of the 60-foot x 60-foot six-story building at 11:45 p.m. on Saturday evening. By 1:29 a.m. it went to a full six-alarms. The fire was under control at 4:10 a.m.
Embers from the blaze caused the house at 931 Dinsmore Street, located in back of the building, to catch fire, but it was quickly extinguished by firefighters.
Fire officials report that six civilians and 33 firefighters were treated for minor injuries. Two of the civilian injuries were smoke related.
Over 50 units and 250 firefighters and EMS workers were on the scene.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the fire was still under investigation by fire marshals.
Though the top floors of the building were gutted, Kate Lindquist of the Department of Buildings said the agency's engineers have determined the building does not need to be demolished as first feared.
"Though the fifth and sixth floors of the building sustained severe fire damage, and over half of the roof structure was destroyed, the building's exterior walls remain structurally stable from the ground floor up to the fifth floor," said Lindquist in an email response to The Wave on Tuesday. "The sixth floor exterior walls and parapets need to be shored or braced, and the Buildings Department has ordered the building owner to address that concern in the immediate future. However, shoring work cannot commence until the Fire Department investigation is done. Currently, residents are not being allowed to enter the [Nielson Street] building unless authorized to do so."
Those who would like to help the fire victims can send or bring gift cards from retail outlets such as Target, Kmart, and clothing stores to Saint Mary Star of the Sea Church. Father Jim Cunningham is coordinating the assistance to the families who lost their homes.
Cards can also be dropped off at the Church's rectory located at 19-20 New Haven Avenue in Far Rockaway.
Tot R Us Daycare is also collecting all types of donations, including clothes for men, women and children, and gift cards. Donations can be brought or sent to 31-37 Healy Avenue, Suite 1A, Far Rockaway, NY 11691.
Howard Schwach contributed to this story.