The New York City Fire Department continued its investigation Monday into the cause of a four-alarm fire that tore through a block of stores in Queens on Sunday.
Flames broke out in a deli on 99th Street and 66th Avenue in Rego Park just after 8:30 p.m. The fire quickly spread down the block, eventually engulfing several other businesses, including two food markets and a laundromat.
Four businesses were completely destroyed, including an international food market opened by Alfira Bikchantayeva and her husband in 1998. After her husband died five years ago, Bikchantayeva worked 12-hour days, seven days a week to keep the store open.
"Just like a dream, it's like it never happened. I still cannot believe this happened," said Bikchantayeva. "It's terrible, I couldn't sleep all night, I was so shocked."
Locals gathered at the scene to survey the damage as fire officials determined whether the ruined buildings could be salvaged.
"I looked out the windows and saw those flames. I started to cry because these people are here so many years," said Rego Park resident Eve Rook. "I run across the street to get an apple or piece of fruit. The little candy store, there's a woman there named Jenny, she's been there years. She took that little store and she made it into like a little gold mine."
"Every day I come to this lottery store in the morning, buy gum, candy," said Rego Park resident Arkadiy Fayzakov.
About 160 firefighters were called to the scene and 12 suffered minor injuries. The roof caved in on some of the stores, causing trouble for the firefighters.
"While attempting to go in with hand lines, the fire exploded on top of them, the ceiling fell down," said FDNY Assistant Chief James Manahan. "We withdrew the firefighters, we repositioned the exposure stores and we were able to stop the fire from extending past the fourth store going south." A synagogue across from the block suffered minor smoke damage, and local temporarily removed torahs, holy garments and other items of worship from the building.
"I see the synagogue, everything is being evacuated. I run inside, we take everything out," said congregant Simkho Barayev.
The synagogue suffered minor damage and will reopen. It is too soon to say whether the owners of the gutted businesses will rebuild.