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Maria Lalita stared, her eyes brimming with tears, on Monday at a strip of Jackson Heights stores reduced to shells of their former selves by a four-alarm fire last weekend.
Standing in front of a pile of charred remnants of intricately painted bureaus, Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) explained Lalita, an immigrant from Peru, saved her money for “many years” to open up her business, Lalita Party Shop. She loved her job and expected last weekend to be busy selling the mounds of Valentine’s Day goods she had ordered.
Instead, she saw her life’s work go up in flames.
“Thank God in this tragedy no lives were lost,” Lalita said through Dromm, who held a press conference Monday calling on the city to close no fire houses in Queens.
Saturday’s blaze destroyed at least eight businesses and forced the temporary evacuation of about 100 residents living in 54 apartment units, officials said.
Nearly 170 firefighters worked for 3 1/2 hours to extinguish the blaze that began at 9:53 a.m. Saturday morning in the Acme Furniture store at 84-09 37th Ave., officials said. Four firefighters sustained injuries and were treated at area hospitals, officials said. No civilians were hurt in the blaze, an FDNY spokesman said.
Fire officials said the blaze was accidental and caused by a malfunctioning boiler on the first floor of the furniture store.
The fire, which sent plumes of smoke into the sky that could be seen from miles away, was under control by 1:30 p.m., according to an FDNY official.
Though the blaze destroyed businesses that had been in the neighborhood for years, including the 50-year-old Thomas Shoe Repair, Dromm and state Assemblyman Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights) said the fire could have been much worse had firefighters not been able to respond so quickly.
“We realized if any firehouse was unable to respond in the way they did we could’ve had a loss of life,” Dromm said. “We’re saying no to any closings of any firehouses.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s preliminary budget would cut 20 firehouses in any part of the city, though he has not specified where those cuts are expected to be.
“This weekend’s fire further reinforces the critical need to keep all firehouses open,” Peralta said. “We cannot afford to have less fire protection in our neighborhoods. Our lives and our businesses depend upon it.”
Debora Hughes, who lived in the Jackson Heights neighborhood for more than 20 years, said she was devastated by the fire.
“Our neighborhood didn’t need this,” Hughes said. “This is a lot of loss. A lot of people are out of work now. That’s hard. That’s really hard.”
Hundreds of people spent their Saturday morning watching the fire consume the commercial businesses, including Acme furniture, Lalita’s, Thomas Shoe Repair, Willa Barber Shop, the Total Relax salon, 718 Realty, Colony Liquors, and Stylo Boutique, residents said.
About 100 residents living in 54 apartment units at 35-43 84th St., a six-story brick residential building, were evacuated, according to fire officials and the building’s superintendent.
Dromm said his office met with owners of the affected businesses Saturday and said the city Department of Small Business Services has arranged to give those affected by the fire “immediate assistance.”
Dromm also met with evacuated residents, many of whom have been able to return to their homes, to help secure “medical assistance for those in need, including seniors and the disabled, and make special arrangements for pets.”
Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4574.
©2010 Community Newspaper Group
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