Sunset Park Fire: A Loss that is Shared Yet Different for Everyone

AMNew York - May 15, 2019

by Lauren Cook

This is Part One of a series that will follow the journeys of four tenants as they rebuild following a fire that destroyed their homes in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. We'll check back in with them in June and, in future installments, delve into the community's support, financial ramifications and adjusting to a new home.

Greta Gertler Gold can't bear to think of the smoky remains of her daughter's baby clothes. Ivette Dávila-Richards is scrambling to find a new home that's both affordable and comfortable for her and her daughter. Eleanor Whitley mourns the loss of her cat with a tattoo tribute. Luisa Ostolaza, at 82, is relying on the generosity of family and friends while she waits for a new city-appointed apartment.

All four women, along with the dozens of other residents of 702 44th St. in Sunset Park, have recently begun the long journey of rebuilding their lives after a fire rendered all 54 units uninhabitable.

It was a sunny, crisp spring afternoon on April 3 when the FDNY was first called to the six-story prewar building that overlooks the neighborhood's namesake park at Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn. What started as a small apartment fire quickly grew to six alarms, with roughly 250 firefighters and EMTs responding to the scene. Massive flames and smoke billowed from the building’s windows. Then, most of the roof collapsed.

Four civilians and 19 firefighters suffered nonlife-threatening injuries, according to the FDNY. One dog and 13 cats perished in the fire, the Animal Care Centers of NYC said.

The building was deemed uninhabitable by the Department of Buildings because of the extensive damage from the fire, smoke and water. When it might be livable again is an unknown. Several tenants have heard it could take two or three years for the structure to reopen, but attorney Theresa Racht, who represents the condominium board for the building, said it’s still too early in the process to know for sure.

“There is no schedule yet. We’re still in the really early stages of what to do to get to the point of restoration,” she said.

What the former residents are experiencing is far from an anomaly. In 2018, the FDNY responded to 27,053 structural fires citywide, 8,342 of which occurred in Brooklyn. Each time, protocols of multiple city agencies, from the city Emergency Management Department to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, were triggered.

The Sunset Park fire impacted 71 total households, including tenants of a neighboring building, a Red Cross spokesman said. Of the households registered with the Red Cross, 27 were provided emergency housing for two to three nights. The rest relocated on their own, staying in hotels or with family and friends.

After those first few days, HPD stepped in to provide short- and long-term housing for 17 households. As of May 7, three of the long-term housing applicants had been placed, an HPD spokesman said.

Despite the assistance, the displaced tenants of 702 44th St. face uncertain futures.

Of all the things Luisa Ostolaza lost in the fire, she misses her bed the most. For just over a month, the 82-year-old had been sleeping on a couch in her niece's Sunset Park apartment. “I don’t have a home,” Ostolaza said, as she sat grim-faced on the steps of her niece’s three-story brownstone.

On the day of the fire, Ostolaza and her daughter, Evie Douglas, 55, were inside her apartment when they heard a commotion in the lobby around 4:45 p.m.

“I went out there and, all of a sudden, I just see firemen dragging their hoses up. I saw some smoke, but not a whole lot,” said Douglas, who lives in the Bronx.

The pair grabbed a few essential items from Ostolaza's first-floor apartment, but they were so far away from where the fire was that they thought it would be contained. It wasn’t until later in the evening, as the fire continued to rage, that Ostolaza realized the full scope of her loss. “A terrible day, that was. When I saw everything, it was really bad.”

The unit sustained severe water damage that ruined the ceiling and warped the floor. Douglas' rescue cat, Knight, was among the pets that died. “I didn’t grab my cat. I thought I was coming back,” she said, the sadness plain on her face.

In the weeks following the fire, the mother and daughter were able to retrieve clothes, keepsakes, photos and anything else that wasn’t ruined by the deluge of water used to extinguish the blaze.

Now, after 13 years in the same apartment, Ostolaza is looking for a new home. Douglas has been helping her through the process, filling out a stream of paperwork and applying to replace her destroyed birth certificate, Social Security card, financial records and proof of disability.

Enrolled in the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption program, Ostolaza has applied for long-term relocation through HPD. She's hoping her new place will be in or close to Sunset Park, where her church and community are.

In the meantime, she’s also paying $1 a month to secure her ability to return to the building if it reopens, through a program run by the state Department of Homes and Community Renewal.

Despite the hardships, Douglas marveled at her mother’s resiliency: “She’s been very positive. I’ve often thought, 'wow she’s so strong,' because she continues to go out like before.”

Until HPD places Ostolaza in a new home, she is spending a few weeks in Florida on a trip that was planned before the fire. Then, she’ll split her time between her other daughter’s home on Staten Island and a friend’s place in Sunset Park.

“I just want a home, a bed and a stove to cook on and a refrigerator to put my things in."

“It’s really weird what you fixate on,” Eleanor Whitley, 37, said as she reflected back on the moment she realized the fifth-floor condo she's owned for nearly 10 years was destroyed in the fire. “I was just like, 'OK, I’ve got to cancel all of my utilities,' and I just went into doing mode because that was how I could deal with it.”

Then, her insurance adjuster asked her to make a list of her belongings. While she was able to salvage some items — her dad’s leather jacket from the 1950s, two guitars — she lost a lot more, including a table that was given to her parents as a wedding gift.

What hurt most, though, was the death of her cat Crackers. “It sort of came to me in waves,” she said of the grief and stress.

Her community — the tenants who have banded together, as well as her friends and neighbors — has helped her cope. “It’s less the stuff, which, it sucks, but like, what can you do. It’s more this sense of home — and I lived there for like 10 years so I really worked to make it a home."

Immediately following the fire, the fifth and sixth floors were so damaged that Whitley was not able to retrieve anything from her condo.

“The sixth floor is completely gone, and the apartment next to mine is pretty much gone, so there’s a giant hole in my bedroom that bordered that" unit, she said.

For a few weeks, Whitley stayed with her boyfriend, who lives just blocks away. She hired a broker, who helped her find a new apartment with a one-year lease several blocks north of Sunset Park. Her insurance will cover up to a year of rent, and then she’s on her own.

But the questions loom: What will it take to rebuild the condo and reopen the building? How do property taxes work? Does she even want to stay in New York? The answers will have short- and long-term effects.

“I don’t know what it means for me financially because well, [crap], that was a big part of my financial future and now that’s in question,” Whitley added. “It’s just adjusting to that uncertainty.”

For now, she’s focusing on returning to her daily routines, like cooking and going to the gym. She plans to go back to producing her new podcast and writing a book.

Sitting in her newly furnished apartment, the walls sparse as she salvages prints from her old place and finds new décor, Whitley said she’s more worried about the fate of the rent-stabilized tenants and families who she’s become close with in the aftermath of the fire. “The level of loss is both shared and so different for everyone. That really strikes me over and over and over again."

After 30 years of living in the same building, Ivette Dávila-Richards said the shock of losing her home has been “surreal.”

“I kind of feel like my body and my emotions detached, because literally for two weeks I felt nothing,” Dávila-Richards, 39, said as she sat in a cafe in Sunset Park. “When it really hit home is when we were allowed to go back in that Saturday [after the fire] . . . That was emotional.”

Whatever was salvageable immediately after the fire has since been ruined — covered in mold from sitting in water for weeks on end, she said.

Dávila-Richards and her twin sister Ivonne Dávila had lived together in their third-floor, rent-stabilized apartment but with her daughter — a recent graduate of the University of Buffalo — returning home later this month, the two are now apartment hunting separately.

While her sister stays with their mom, Dávila-Richards is sleeping at a friend’s place in Bensonhurst until she finds a new apartment through the city’s affordable housing lotteries. Her commute to work as a freelance multimedia journalist is much longer now: “I need to budget an extra 45 minutes.”

Initially, the sisters had been placed in short-term housing by HPD at two different shelter apartments, but Dávila-Richards said the first one on the Upper West Side had bed bugs and the second one in the Bronx had smokers in the building, which was an issue for Ivonne, who is asthmatic.

An HPD spokesman said they received Dávila-Richards’ complaints, but the agency did not find any evidence of bed bugs in the first apartment. The spokesman said the sisters were offered a third option in the Bronx, which is not a normal part of the procedure, but they didn’t take it.

Dávila-Richards, however, was critical of how she was treated throughout the process, and not just by HPD. She called the emergency center set up to provide support for tenants “chaotic” and suggested the city needs to do more to prepare for fire emergencies.

“We had to wait hours. We would get there at 10 a.m. and not be seen until 4 p.m.,” she said, adding that it often seemed that agencies did not coordinate with each other.

She also was surprised to learn there’s no fast-track for rent-stabilized tenants displaced from their homes and who have to apply for a new apartment.

“Your life is upended in a way that’s out of your control. It’s not like you chose to leave, you were forced to leave,” Dávila-Richards said, the stress of the situation weighing on her as she looked out the window of the cafe. “Through all of this, I’ve actually become depressed and feeling so overwhelmed.”

Her daughter, Kaitlin B. Viera, 23, has been her rock through the last few weeks, encouraging her to find an apartment and offering to help pay the rent when they're settled. Dávila-Richards hopes she can find a place within their means. "I don’t want to be struggling. I’m looking for something either near here in Brooklyn or in [Manhattan], but that’s what’s been so hard because I’m not seeing anything that’s quite affordable."

Once she’s settled into a new place, Dávila-Richards plans to prioritize traveling more and experiencing new things. “I’ve been wanting to rebuild my life anyway.”

Food, diapers and a safe place for her children to sleep — a checklist flashed through Greta Gertler Gold’s mind as she learned that her fifth-floor condo was destroyed in the fire. “I sort of went into auto super momma mode,” Gold, 48, recalled.

She put her 4-month-old son Eben in his stroller, left her co-working space and picked up her 3 1/2-year-old daughter Lila from preschool. Gold’s husband, Adam, 41, met them at auditions for "Triplight," the musical she’s working on, and took the children to a hotel. Then, she went to see the building.

“I couldn’t really comprehend what was going on. And then I got really upset about Minke our cat being in there,” she said. “I had been so concerned about getting both children safely to the hotel . . . I just thought Minke would be OK.”

In the weeks that followed, Gold and her husband grappled with how to explain the fire and the death of their cat to Lila while juggling their daughter’s daily routine, work and looking for a new apartment. “I felt like, we have to get them a home immediately."

The pressure to quickly find a new home came at a cost. In addition to leaving their Sunset Park community behind, the two are now paying double the rent they had been paying.

Sitting in the kitchen of her new apartment in Windsor Terrace, Gold said she still feels very lucky. Although it doesn’t feel quite like home yet, she loves her new space and is grateful she was able to find something that works for her family.

“The repercussions for us are sort of more long-term, like we don’t really know now."

For the last nine years, Gold and her husband had been renting the Sunset Park condo from her father, who lives in Australia. The couple planned to buy the condo from him — a dream that is no longer possible.

“We worked for several years toward being able to get a mortgage as two creative freelance artists . . . We would have been able to own our property, and that would have been great for our children,” Gold said. “But then again, we’re very lucky people. You know, we’re not on the streets.”

With the future uncertain, Gold's children have helped her stay present and positive.

“We have our lives and our family and a really nice place to live right now, so that’s all I can focus on right now. When I start to think about the long-term effects of anything, I get really upset and depressed,” she said. “But I can’t really afford to stay in that headspace with two small children, and they’re just so smiley and energetic and I’m just in the moment with them so much. So that’s been very helpful for me.”