In aftermath of huge fire, Sunset Park has come to help impacted families

April 5, 2019 Jaime DeJesus
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Sunset Park has come together following one of the neighborhood’s biggest fires in years.

Following the massive six-alarm fire on April 3 at 702 44th Street that left more than 23 people injured and over 50 households displaced, area residents, organizations and elected officials are organizing to lend a hand.

One of them, the Sunset Park Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District, set up a gofundme page during the blaze.

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“While the fire was raging, I was in touch with Melissa Del Valle Ortiz from Congressmember Nydia Velázquez’s office and Councilmember Carlos Menchaca’s staff and members of the community board including [CB 7 Chairperson] Cesar Zuniga who was impacted by the loss of his home,” said the BID’s executive director David Estrada, who pointed out that because a BID is an independently formed nonprofit corporation, it can “act as the non profit administrator of funds to support those impacted families

“Speed was of the essence,” Estrada stressed.

Zuniga said he was “very concerned about my neighbors, specifically neighbors that are not owners like I am, who don’t have renter’s insurance, who are living paycheck to paycheck, or who are elderly or have young children.

“That’s been our priority at the community board,” he told this paper, noting that the board has been working with Menchaca’s office, the Red Cross and the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development to aid those who have been displaced. “Everything has been as good as it can be during the circumstances. These are not just people that I represent as a community board chair. These are my neighbors, people that I walk past in my pajamas.”

Along with stressing the importance of the gofundme page, Zuniga emphasized the issue of where the families who lost their homes will relocate.

“The housing situation that the city provides isn’t adequate for the needs of some of our neighbors so we’re working with local co-op boards and local realtors to try to find longer-term housing solutions for families,” he said. “We have cases where families are told they have to separate and some are told they have to go as far as the Bronx. That’s not a solution that people can live with. I’m aware of that and I’ll do everything I can to make sure we find a better solution.”

The gofundme page had already raised more than $43,000 at the time of this writing, said Estrada. “Phones have been ringing off the hook,” he noted. “This is a tragic moment but I’m inspired by how much people want to help and not just with money online. People are calling wanting to offer clothing, food, even furniture, [as well as] places for people to use as a workplace if they were freelancers, and to take care of people’s pets. This community really responds when something as tragic as this happens. Gofundme is just one part of that.”

To donate, visit The BID isn’t taking any administrative fee.

Photo by Melissa Del Valle Ortiz

Other organizations have also stepped up to the plate.

The Church of the Redeemer, 4717 Seventh Avenue, is giving free coffee, tea, food and clothes to families impacted by the fire. It is also serving as a drop-off center where people can donate toiletries such as toothpaste, toothbrush, soap and toilet tissue, canned food and food that can be immediately cooked for the displaced families, as well as water, juice, clothes, bath towels, toilet paper and wipes.

Clothing donations and hygiene essentials are also being accepted by the Sunset Park Salvation Army at 520 50th Street.

Zuniga — who was in his office on Long Island when the fire started — recounted his personal story.

He said he rushed home after getting calls and text messages telling him that the building was on fire. In the meantime, he said, when his children and the babysitter, “heard the alarms, they tried to evacuate downstairs but were told [by Fire Department personnel] to go back into the apartment and evacuate via  the fire escape. That was really hard for the kids. They were rattled by that. But, they got out and that’s what matters.”

The residents’ pets situation is grim, Zuniga said. “Most of the animals that were left behind have just been recovered and weren’t alive, including my two cats,” he told this paper. “Most of the animals on the fifth floor and fourth floor, even the first floor, didn’t make it. It’s a really horrible situation.”

The day after the fire, the Sunset Park Recreation Center acted as a service and intake center to help the displaced. Among those on hand were personnel from the Red Cross and the city’s Department of Emergency Management. Community Board 7, elected officials and their representatives were also in attendance.

Among the issues, said Estrada, was “Finding out if people had identification, if they had lost their school records or their medical records, so it was quite a busy scene at the rec center all day yesterday. The NYPD talked about traffic control and the Department of Education was present because they’re changing where students will be picked up and dropped off to stay away from the danger zone.

“When I left at 5 p.m.,” he added, “there was still a firefighter on a seven-story crane with a fully open hose hurling water into empty hulk of the building.  Even the first responders and engineers weren’t allowed into that building anytime yesterday.”

The fire’s magnitude was still the subject of talk.

According to Estrada, the building’s “sixth floor is gone. The fifth floor appears to be gone. The other floors must be flooded. The basement was said to be flooded up to the ceiling so the backyard of the church on the adjacent property on the south side is a no-go zone until they can determine the structural integrity of the walls.

“I haven’t seen anything like this,” he told this paper, “and the old timers and neighborhood natives are saying that they’ve never seen anything on this scale.”

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