By Gina Martinez
“This was the lifeline of the neighborhood — now where are you going to go? asked longtime Kew Gardens Hills resident Jimmy J. F. as he stared at the burned-out block of mom-and-pop stores.
A five-alarm fire destroyed 14 businesses in Kew Gardens Hills right before the new year, FDNY officials said, as the flames tore through an entire block on Vleigh Place and gutted the neighborhood’s central shopping strip.
The blaze began at 6:30 p.m. last Friday and was not brought under control until midnight, Nearly 200 firefighters were on the scene, with four of them sustaining minor injuries, FDNY said. No civilians were injured in the fire, officials said.
The cause of the inferno was still under investigation, but officials said they did not consider the fire suspicious.
The raging flames obliterated the block of small businesses, including a law office, a pizzeria, a dry cleaners and a bakery, between 76th Road and 77th Avenue
“Here we are, it’s a holiday weekend, and 14 people lose their business,” FDNY Chief of Department James Leonard said the day of the fire. . “Sometimes that’s lost in the excitement of the fire. Think about all these business owners, people who work in these stores, and even the impact on the neighborhood, for all these people who shop in these stores, that’s the real tragedy.”
Several days after the fire a shocked man stood behind the construction fence put up around the burned storefronts and looked at the wreckage in disbelief.
“I shopped here before at this bakery” he said Tuesday.“It’s so unbelievable, I feel really bad for the owner. I used to buy bread here.”
Jimmy J.F has lived in the area for over 40 years. He said the fire was a huge loss to the community.
“It’s the first time anything like this ever happened around here,” he said. “It wiped out 14 stores. It’s an accident no matter how you look at it, but it ruined the community. I’ve lived here 40 years, four generations of my family, so have a lot of people. It sucks, because now you have nothing. It was a good place to come quick to get something from the deli, a quick slice of pizza, you needed a gallon of milk , Everything was convenient. City Councilman Rory I. Lancman (D-Hillcrest),who grew up in the neighborhood, said he intends to do everything possible to help the businesses affected by the fire.
“My heart goes out to the business owners who lost their livelihood in the devastating fire in Kew Gardens Hills, and my thoughts are with the brave first responders who were injured,” he said. “These shops have been staples in the community, and grabbing a slice of pizza after school at PS 164 was a highlight for me then — and for many decades after. Countless memories are intertwined with these businesses and this loss hits home for so many of us. “
He added, “The road ahead will no doubt be a tough one, but my office is working with the New York City Department of Small Business Service to help them connect with the business owners and offer assistance during this tough time.”
Reach Gina Martinez by e-mail at gmart