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Bleak Times Ahead for Victims of Sunset Park Fire

The nearly 100 residents of the apartment building located on Seventh Avenue in Sunset Park that was damaged by a six-alarm fire on April 3 gathered at a makeshift victim assistance center a day after to seek help. Those who live below the fourth floor, where the units were not as badly affected as those above, were anxiously waiting to go back to their apartments to fetch their belongings. Those who live on the damaged sixth floor were devastated because they lost all their possessions in the fire. No one was allowed to go back to the building as of April 4 for safety reasons. An elderly woman who lost all her savings in the fire kept saying: “I don’t want to be alive anymore.”

A Chinese couple, both 50 years old, living on the first floor had to sleep on their friend’s floor the night after the fire. Despite reassurances from authorities that police officers and firefighters were deployed to safeguard the building and residents would not have to worry about their belongings, the couple still wanted to go back to get their IDs and possessions. They also complained that the firefighters “only started to extinguish the fire by water an hour after the fire broke out,” and the slow response was part of the reason it went out of control and residents suffered big losses.

A Chinese woman living on the sixth floor where the fire broke out was at work when it happened. She learned about the incident during a phone call from her roommate. Then when she searched for the news, “I was stupefied,” she said. She lost all her valuables including watches, cash and court documents. She said at first the fire was under control. But an hour after she arrived on the scene, she witnessed her whole apartment burning down and started crying helplessly.

An elderly woman couldn’t stop her tears. “I’d rather die than having my belongings burned to ashes,” she said. A volunteer at the center told [World Journal] the lady had already suffered a lot in her life. She was kicked out by her daughter-in-law after helping to take care of her grandson for more than 10 years. Then she moved into her sister’s apartment which was wiped out by the fire, and she lost everything now. Volunteers accompanied the lady the whole time in case she did anything drastic to herself. Counselors were also there to help her.

In addition to the shock of the incident, the residents are facing another challenge when applying for assistance – many of them are subletters who only have a verbal agreement with their landlord. To apply for temporary shelter, one needs to provide his or her lease agreement. The absence of the document may affect the residents’ qualification.

Volunteers have helped residents contact Council member Carlos Menchaca’s office which asked residents to complete a form with information such as the name of their landlord, phone numbers, the date their lease started and the rent amount, and provide some proof of address. Office staff members said they did not know how to solve the problem yet, but they would work with all related agencies to help the victims move into shelters as early as possible.

Also see a Brooklyn Reporter story on how “area residents, organizations and elected officials are organizing to lend a hand” in the aftermath of the fire.

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