BY JAMES FARRELL
On Friday afternoon, only a charred skeleton was left of the three-story building that once housed dozens of people and a 99¢ store on College Point Boulevard. The air still smelt burnt and fire trucks continued to work on clearing the debris so they could further investigate the cause of a five-alarm fire that began just before 9:50 p.m. on Thursday night and blazed until 1:36 a.m. Friday morning.
The fire left seven families homeless, according to a Facebook page called “Displaced Families of the College Point Fire,” which has organized a handful of fundraisers on behalf of those families. It also left 10 firefighters with minor injuries, according to an FDNY spokesman. But the blaze, which was captured on video by several eyewitnesses spewing flames and smoke rapidly into the sky, left no major injuries or fatalities.
Nonna Sawtschenko, 78, lives two blocks away from the place of the fire. She says that the smoke was so strong that she thought something was burning inside her house. When she stepped outside, she said it was nearly impossible to see. “The smoke is so dense, it’s like if it’s a snow storm and the snow is blowing and you can’t see two feet in front of you,” she said.
Initial reports of the fire described it as “suspicious,” because of how quickly it worsened, but an FDNY spokesperson clarified that when there was no immediate cause to a fire, it was often classified as “suspicious,” but that that did not necessarily suggest that the FDNY suspected criminality or bad intentions. The cause was ultimately determined to be accidental, stemming from the careless discard of smoking materials, the FDNY said.
Other witnesses describe scenes of chaos. Patricia Nieves, 47, who lives a block away from the fire, came down to College Point Boulevard to get milk when the fire started. She said she saw the children come out of the building in their pajamas, crying. “It was terrible,” Nieves said.
College Point is rallying around the affected families. Jennifer Shannon, co-owner of Gennaro’s Pizza, which is across the street from the site of the fire, says she and a number of other community members have helped organize fundraisers and donations. They’ve collected clothes and gift cards and will be hosting fundraisers over the next couple days, including a fundraiser at Five Guys this Saturday. Shannon, who created the “Displaced Families of the College Point Fire” Facebook page, says that she knew the families as customers at her pizza place.
“It was like the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Shannon said. “They’re just very overwhelmed,” she said of the families.
Shannon added that the families are currently staying in shelters and friends’ apartments, and that the community response has been strong. However, the donations have been mostly clothing and toys, which the families no longer have room for without a place to stay. Shannon is hoping to begin raising more monetary donations to help them get back on their feet.
The College Point community’s selflessness didn’t just extend to the fire’s aftermath. Shannon said she was struck by people who tried to help as the fire was going on. “People were running around banging on everybody’s door yelling ‘get out get out!’” she said.
Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400×127, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @farrellj329