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Belmont Fire Survivors: One Year Later

Posted on December 28, 2018 by Alice Kenny  |  Share

Fleeing Fire to Arctic Air: Memories Surviving Hell


 

On a frigid night one year ago today, subzero winds fanned a fire at 2363 Prospect Ave. in the Bronx into a massive blaze that could not be contained.  Water spraying from firemen’s hoses froze midstream in the arctic air.   Twelve residents died in what quickly turned into one of the deadliest fires in this borough in the past century.  Those who survived fled from the heat to the cold with nothing but the clothes they wore – and, in at least one case, no clothes at all.

Nearly all residents of this 27-apartment building were recent immigrants. Nearly all had earned legal immigration status.  And, nearly all were relying on entry-level jobs to work their way up the rungs of the American dream. The blaze turned their dreams to ashes. 

The American Red Cross helped residents immediately after the fire.  After that, Catholic Charities NY stepped in, as it often does, as the prime provider of longer-term disaster relief. 

Not surprisingly, this fire made international front-page news.  But the story of its survivors is, perhaps, the bigger story, a story of human will facing off against nature; a story of charity, resilience and hope.  Each victim of the 12/28/17 Belmont Fire has her own powerful story as do those who came to their aide.

“It happened just three days after Christmas and taught me so much about tragedy and resilience,” said Nelsi Vazquez, the Catholic Charities NY South Bronx case management supervisor who helped direct Catholic Charities Belmont Fire program.  “No one, not even the children, asked about gifts that burned up.  They were just grateful to be alive.”

Ester Sakyi, 50, born in Ghana, says she was dead tired that night after working four 12-hour overnight shifts at Mt. Sinai hospital as a certified nursing assistant. She was so exhausted that when her boyfriend from Ghana phoned her at 5 p.m., she lay down on her bed to speak with him, she said.  She felt increasingly hot, however, attributed this to menopause, and took all off her clothes to cool down. 

By the time she realized the heat was external, not internal, black smoke and extreme temperatures made the hallway impassable.  The only possibility she had to save herself from her fourth floor apartment – the top floor and home to nearly all who died in the blaze, many of whom she counted as friends – was to run immediately out to the fire escape.  She was wearing no clothes on this frigid night.  None. 

Finally, after waiting 20 minutes, nude, with 6 neighbors on a fire escape whose bottom ladder to safety was broken, fire fighters led them to safety.

“My hands were freezing and I was in pain,” she said, coughing as she spoke a nearly year later due to damage caused that day by smoke inhalation.  “Blood was pouring from my left knee.  I was so cold I didn’t realize I cut it on the fire escape.”

A driver in a passing car spotted Ms. Sakyi, still without clothes, and drove her to Montefiore Hospital.  There she received hospital pants and top, six stitches for a cut she incurred on her leg on the fire escape and treatment for smoke inhalation. 

On June 9, 2017, Ms. Sakyi married the boyfriend who called her that night, crediting him for keeping awake and by doing so, saving her life.

Matthew Igbinedion, 49, got his three seconds of fame as the iconic symbol of this deadly fire; the despondent man wrapped in a Red Cross blanket featured that week by the New York Post.  A keyboard operator by trade and skilled golfer, Nigeria sponsored him to represent his birth nation in a world golf tournament in the U.S. 2004.  He fell in love with the United States and a woman he met, remained, married and received legal status. 

Through his job as a certified nursing assistant at Hebrew Home for the Aged from 2012-2017 he discovered his true professional goal and passion, he says, to work as a nurse.  Months before the fire he began studying full time for a registered nursing degree at Hostas Community College.  He funded his studies by continuing to work full time- plus overtime – as a psychiatric health technician at Bellevue Hospital Center.

So, similar to Ms. Sakyi, he was dead tired the night of the fire.  He had worked the 11:15 p.m. – 7:15 a.m. night shift and then studied for school.  But, unlike Ms. Sakyi, he lay down and fell into a deep sleep at 5 p.m.

“That I woke up was a miracle,” he says.  “God woke me up.”

His apartment, filled with white smoke, was silent as a grave yard.  Wearing only pants and a shirt he jumped from his second floor window.  With no slippers, socks, hat nor coat he landed – hard – on the street below. A Red Cross staffer spotted him shivering on the street. The worker gave Mr. Igbidedion the blanket that put him on the New York Post cover.

Fortunately, Mr. Igbinedion’s sons who lived with him, Desmond, now 18, and Stanley, now 15, were having sleepovers the night of the fire, the older with a friend in Brooklyn, the younger with an aunt in Maryland.

After the fire, Red Cross agreed to move him and Desmond into a series of motels and shelters.  However, they did not permit Stanley to move in with them because he was out of state the night of the fire.

Mr. Igbinedion and Desmond were moved from shelter to shelter.  In one, they shared a shower with a clogged drain and a kitchen with no stove and broken microwave with five other homeless families.  But worst of all, he says, was being separated from his younger son, Stanley. 

With Catholic Charities help, he finally found a new apartment he could afford. Fortunately, he was able to keep his job and return almost immediately to work.  Unfortunately, the fire may have caused long-term damage to his health.  Once so healthy he was recruited to play golf internationally, he now limps in pain from damage to his ancle and foot caused by his jump last year to safety.

Catholic Charities NY staff contacted each fire victim. Thanks to a Go-Fund-Me page started by Fr. John Morris, pastor of Our Lady of Mt. Sinai in the Belmont section of the Bronx, and other funds received, Catholic Charities was able to distribute more than $260,000 to help the fire victims rebuild their lives.  Case managers helped them find new homes and pay new rent deposits, connected them to counseling and case management services and gave them gift cards for clothes and furniture.    

“It was amazing to see how strangers mobilized, anonymously and quickly,” Catholic Charities Belmont Fire Program supervisor Nelsi Vazquez said, “from donating funds to driving survivors to hospitals and safety.”

Ms. Sakyi and Mr. Igbinedion are just two of a host of Belmont fire victims helped by Catholic Charities.  Another victim gave birth the night of the fire; another was permanently disabled after breaking her leg jumping from the window to escape. Each has his own story of survival.  Each comments on guilt felt for surviving while next-door neighbors died.  And each expressed gratitude for having another Christmas to celebrate.

“That time was tough; we didn’t have anything,” Ms. Sakyi says.  “Catholic Charities was there for us when we needed them.”