Catastrophe! 21 cats die in Bensonhurst apartment fire

What a loss: Denise and Peter Szalaiko sift through the wreckage — and confront intense emotions — after 21 cats died in a fire in their apartment.
Brooklyn Daily
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Twenty-one cats died in a Bensonhurst apartment fire on Jan. 10.

Humans were left with only the clothes on their backs after the inferno on 19th Avenue and 80th Street, and only one mouser, their pet Murray, escaped the ordeal with any of his nine lives intact, one heart-broken tenant said.

“It was a nightmare. All we have left is Murray,” said Peter Szalaiko, who runs the trap, neuter, and release group Ferals in Peril along with his wife.

The pair has been fixing stray cats for two decades, and they created a clinic inside Big Apple Car Service’s Bath Beach dispatch office where the animals can get treatment and recover in 2014. But an infection was going around the mouser medical center, and the Szalaikos brought home 18 healthy cats to quarantine them from infected ones the day before the blaze, Szalaiko said.

A faulty surge protector ignited a fire in the couple’s one-bedroom apartment at approximately 10 pm, and it quickly engulfed the entire flat, according to a Fire Department spokesman.

The 18 strays and two of the Szalaikos’ own pets died outright, and a third pet feline had to be put down for smoke inhalation. Murray survived and is on a cocktail of medication, according to Szalaiko, who estimated the total vet bill for both fur balls was more than $7,000.

Meantime, well-wishers have donated more than $21,000 to help the Szalaikos land on their feet — but they plan to use as much as they can for the clinic, Szalaiko said.

“Our average monthly bill for just litter and food is usually $3,000 so we’re going to pour that money into helping the cats,” he said. “It’s just mind-boggling that people are being so generous. We just want to keep helping the cats and we’re focused on how we can keep doing that. And no fire is going to stop that.”

Donations can be dropped off at Big Apple Car Service (169 Bay 17th St. between Bath and Benson avenues in Bath Beach) or made online at

Reach reporter Caroline Spivack at or by calling (718) 260–2523. Follow her on Twitter @carolinespivack.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story stated the Szalaikos brought home infected cats. They actually brought home healthy cats to quarantine them.
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