Displaced families searching for answers following Sunset Park blaze

Displaced families searching for answers following Sunset Park blaze
Photo by Paul Martinka

Dozens of families displaced by a Sunset Park inferno Wednesday will have to spend days waiting to regain access to their 44th Street home, unsure of the damage to their apartments, property, and even their beloved pets as they wait for firefighters and building inspectors to sound the all clear, according to a resident and local civic guru.

“I have two cats in there,” said Cesar Zuniga, a resident of 702 44th St. and the chairman of Community Board 7. “We’re just hoping against hope that they’re OK.”

The fire broke out on the top floor of the six-story residential building between Seventh and Eighth Avenues at 4:46 p.m., and firefighters stormed the property’s smoldering pent-house apartments only to be forced back outside, as high-winds swept the fire towards them, eventually forcing New York’s Bravest to battle the blaze from ladders positioned over the structure beyond the fire’s reach, according to FDNY Chief of Department John Sudnik.

And while firefighters continued pouring water into the Sunset Park building well into Thursday evening, officials with FDNY and Department of Buildings, speaking at a closed-door meeting Thursday, said they’re expecting another three to four days of engineering assessments before they allow residents back into the building, according to Zuniga, who as CB7 chair was privy to the private council.

As a result, residents living on the lower floors — floors four through four six suffered either full, or partial collapse — have no idea which of their possessions are salvageable and which have been destroyed in the deluge of smoke, fire, and water, according to the civic leader.

“There’s no possibility we’re going to get in there to retrieve personal effects,” said Zuniga. “It’s hard, people are very upset.”

In addition to the burning building, Department of Buildings officials evacuated three neighboring structures, and some 90 people had registered by Thursday for emergency shelter at the Sunset Park Recreation Center on Seventh Avenue, where various city and relief organizations including Red Cross, Catholic Charities, Office of Emergency Management, and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development setup an ad-hoc relief center in response to the crisis, according to David Estrada, director of the Sunset Park Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District.

Acting on the direction of local elected officials, including Councilman Carlos Menchaca, Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, and Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, Estrada created an online fund raiser to benefit the displaced 44th Street residents that’s already raised more than $15,000 by 5:30 p.m. Thursday.

Condo owners living in the building were required to purchase homeowners insurance, but renters were not, according to Zuniga, who said some neighbors may have been wiped out by the fire.

“Some people have been coming up to me very concerned about the fact they don’t have renters insurance, and they’re wondering how to become whole,” he said. ”This is where I’m hoping the community steps in and works with Councilman Menchaca’s office to help out.”

All told, the conflagration injured 32 people, including nearly two dozen firefighters, who suffered burns, sprains, and debilitating smoke inhalation, according to a spokesman for the fire department.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.
Residents of a 54-unit, six-story building will have to wait days before they can return to assess damages to their homes.
Photo by Paul Martinka

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