The human toll of this week’s destructive fire on Grand Street came into sharp focus last night. A large number of residents displaced by the blaze crowded into the basement of the Chinese Benevolent Association on Mott Street for an informational meeting with city officials and community leaders.
Sitting in the front row — the family of 87-year old Sing Ho, a longtime resident of 283 Grand, who died in Sunday night’s fire, unable to escape his sixth floor apartment. Ho’s daughter, fighting back tears, demanded answers about how the fire started and why her father could not be rescued (more of what she had to say this weekend).
The meeting, organized by City Councilmember Margaret Chin, also included State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senator Daniel Squadron, as well as representatives from the mayor’s office, the American Red Cross and numerous community organizations poised to help the victims.
Chin, who four month ago became the first Chinese Council-person to represent Chinatown, acted as translator during last night’s meeting. She assured the tenants that everyone was “working together” to make sure they’re placed in temporary apartments and, ultimately, in permanent housing.
Since Monday, The American Red Cross has been accommodating those displaced at hotels in Midtown. As of yesterday, they were providing rooms to 171 people, offering daily meals and arranging for metal health counseling. But the residents can only stay in hotels through tomorrow. The Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development has been working on placing the families, but they did not have immediate answers about those arrangements.
Officials said the cause of the fire has not been determined. Residents were concerned that the demolition of 283 and 285 Grand (which began yesterday) would hamper the investigation. Saying the buildings must come down because they pose a serious safety threat, the officials offered assurances that the demolition would not destroy forensic evidence.
Fire investigators told the Daily News it doesn’t look like arson, but rather an electrical fire starting in the back of a 99 Cent store in 283 Grand. But residents are clearly suspicious, in part because the buildings had been put on the market more than a year ago. One tenant asked whether the owner, Solomon Scheinifeld, had come forward. A City official responded, the “owner of all of the buildings have been accounted for.” While most of the residents were not aware of it, a lawyer representing Scheinfeld was sitting in the back of the room. Although she did not identify herself during the meeting, Allison Furman listened to the briefing and to the questions being asked, and then left quietly.
Silver offered his condolences to the family of Sing Ho and promised, “We will work to assure that the tenants receive short and long term assistance as close to the community as possible… You have friends to help you get back on your feet.” He added, “We will make sure justice is served, and we will get to the bottom of it.” Squadron underscored a concern expressed by many community leaders this week – that residents might be fearful of coming forward. “It doesn’t matter why you were in that building. Your immigration status does not matter,” he said.
During the question and answer period, it was clear the tenants are struggling to deal with critical issues. A woman with a 5-year old child was apparently told there were no shelters available in the community, so she would likely be placed somewhere above 125th Street. Another woman with a “special needs” child now in Bellevue Hospital was told by a major bank she’d have to pay $200 for a replacement safe deposit key. Another tenant tried to get a Green Card replaced, but was told it would cost $300. Chin said she was outraged by these stories and pledged to intervene.
More informational meetings are scheduled next week. In the meantime, numerous organizations are offering assistance to the residents. See below for contact details:
- Asian Americans for Equality 212-964-2288
- MYF Legal Services 212-417-3753
- University Settlement 212-505-1995
- Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association 212-226-6280
- Councilmember Margaret Chin 212-587-3159
- Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver 212-312-1400
- Senator Daniel Squadron 212-298-5577