By Oona Milliken | [email protected]
Smoke rose over the cars on Brooklyn Queens Expressway Aug. 20 after a fire engulfed nine stores on Lee Avenue in South Williamsburg. 10 New York Fire Department firefighters were injured in their attempts to control the five alarm fire.
In a press conference, Laura Kavanagh, NYC Fire Commissioner, said that the call came in at approximately 9 a.m. and though fire department personnel arrived at the site in under four minutes, the fire was serious by time FDNY appeared on scene. According to Kavanagh, while members of the FDNY were injured, one firefighter sustaining life-threatening red-tag wounds, no other people or animals were hurt.
John Hodgens, Chief of Department for FDNY, said in a press conference that the situation on Lee was quite advanced by the time the call came in and that up to 200 fire department and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) personnel were needed in order to control the fire and secure the site. According to Hodgens, most of the stores were closed, so firefighters had to break through the metal roll down gates of each storefront.
“It takes a lot of staffing, a lot of hard work, it’s not an easy task. Our other members have to go in and search to make sure there are no victims and start opening with tools the fire that is hidden above the ceiling [and under the roof],” Hodgens said. “It’s a very labor intensive operation, and they did a great job. Unfortunately, a couple were injured, but they are doing well.”
Hodgens said the 90 degree heat on Sunday added a further challenge to fighting the fire, as well as the sizable amount of smoke from the burning street block, but that the fire was under control as of the early afternoon. To ensure that the fire did not spread to the multi-unit dwelling next door and that no residents were hurt, Hodgens said that fire department personnel secured the wall bordering the fire and evacuated all residents. In accordance with FDNY protocol, an investigation led by a fire marshall will soon begin in order to determine the cause of the fire.
Carlos Masri, a South Williamsburg community member, said Lee Avenue is considered to be an economic and cultural hub of the Hasidic community, and that the damages to the area will be considerable.
“This will affect [the community] very much. This was one of the main centers where people will come here throughout the holidays, or before shabbat. It’s the main hub of this few blocks, and this is one of the major strips. There are restaurants, dry-good stores, all kinds of stuff. It’s like a little mall within the community,” Masri said.
Masri said many Hasidic families right now are out of New York City for the summer while their children attend summer camps, which also might be one of the reasons that all stores were empty at the time of the fire. However, with the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah fast approaching in September, Masri said that the community will feel the effects of the loss more strongly.
According to Masri, having strong local businesses is important for the Hasidic community because they are in compliance with Jewish laws and cultural norms.
“It’s a unique neighborhood because everyone is shopping locally,” Masri said. “Because of traditions and rules, it requires you to shop locally in accordance with Jewish laws and Hasidic culture so that’s why it’s really important to have
local stores. It’s not like you can go out to any other place.”
Lincoln Restler, New York City councilmember for the district, said the fire is a tragedy for the South Williamsburg community, and that he is saddened by the incident.
“This is the street that everybody in South Williamsburg comes to shop for all their needs. To have a devastating fire like this, that destroyed nine beloved local businesses, it breaks my heart,” Restler said. “There are many dozens of people who worked on this corner who don’t have jobs, and there are nine small business owners who poured their blood, sweat and tears into building out great small businesses for our community. In a flash, it’s all gone.
Restler said that the city council will work with the business owners and community leaders to rebuild the Lee Avenue shopping center.
“It’s going to be a long road, a long process, but we’re committed to working as closely as we can with each of the businesses affected to help them get back on their feet,” Restler said.