When Jacqueline Fontanez, 24, walked into her apartment two days after a 5-alarm fire broke out in her six-story building, she expected the worst.
The roof of Fontanez’s sixth floor apartment was destroyed. Fontanez said unlike some of her neighbors, she was fortunate because only some of her belongings were damaged by the water used to fight the fire. Still, her apartment is uninhabitable.
“It was overwhelming walking in there,” Fontanez said of her visit. “I broke down.”
Dozens of families like Fontanez’ were left homeless following the fire at 41-72 Judge Street in Elmhurst on the night of December 27, the day after the 2010 holiday blizzard. The fire was caused by an unattended space heater on the top floor.
Councilmember Julissa Ferreras and local Jackson Heights and Elmhurst community organizations gathered in the lobby of the 66-unit apartment building ravaged by the fire to announce donations to the displaced tenants of clothes, cleaning supplies, and masks, so that residents can safely re-enter their apartments.
“Thank God, no one was killed in the fire,” Ferreras said. “But we have many people in dire need of help right now. I want to express my deepest thanks to the organizations and individuals that have taken the lead in ensuring that their suffering neighbors have aid and assistance at this time.”
Aside from donating masks, the Jackson Heights-Elmhurst Kehillah also donated $200 and announced that they are establishing a new Community Emergency Fund, so that the Kehillah can help other residents faced with an emergency. In addition, Maureen Allen, president of the Kiwanis Club of Jackson Heights, donated $100 in cash on behalf of her organization.
“It is our hope to put together sufficient funds to have cash on hand to help if this kind of tragedy happens again,” said Edward M. McGowan, board chair of Kehillah.
The Jewish Center of Jackson Heights also donated all of the clothing from their thrift shop.
“This is how the community rebuilds by getting these organizations together and helping each other,” said Ed McMillan from the American Red Cross, who is helping to place displaced tenants into temporary housing.
Twenty-seven apartments remain vacant and the families who lived there continue to be displaced. Edward Kalikow, co-owner of Kaled Management Corporation, the building’s management company, said they are working hard and fast to repair the units so that the families can move back in.
“This was a devastating fire,” Kalikow said. “We have a lot of structural damage.”
Within 48 hours of the fire, 30 to 40 tenants were able to return to their apartments, Kalikow said. They plan to have the elevator running again within a week, finish fixing 10 apartments within two weeks and bring the cooking gas back on. It will be another six months until they can get the entire building fixed including installing a new roof.
Fontanez said she is willing to wait the six months to return to her apartment. Until then, Fontanez and her two-year-old son will live with her mother. Fontanez said she didn’t want her son living in a family shelter.
“We decided to wait it out,” Fontanez said.