Midtown Beauty School Welcomes Students Displaced by Brooklyn Fire

By Jill Colvin on July 26, 2011 6:45am 

Kelsey Dones is one of the students displaced by the Brooklyn fire.
Kelsey Dones is one of the students displaced by the Brooklyn fire.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

MIDTOWN — Aspiring hairstylist Kelsey Dones, 18, was in class at her Brooklyn beauty school last month when smoke began seeping into the room. When she and her classmates evacuated moments later, the building’s roof was already engulfed in flames.

"I lost everything,” said Dones two weeks after the near-miss.

“It was scary. Everything was damaged… But luckily everyone got out,” added Sandra Bond, 48, another student at the school.

Though no one was injured in the three-alarm blaze, which a fire department spokesman said took about 145 firefighters two-and-a-half hours to contain, Empire Beauty School's classrooms were ravaged by smoke and water, long-time Executive School Director MaryLynn Russo said.

“It was a tremendous loss for me,” said Russo, who’d run the school for 11 years and said she fought her way back into the burning building past “caution” tape to rescue diplomas and files after rushing to the scene.

In addition to the building, many students, like Dones, also lost their supplies, including textbooks and the mannequins they use to model styles.

Student Amy Thai, an aspiring makeup artist, said she couldn't believe it when school officials called that Sunday with news of the fire.

"I was shocked," said Thai, 27, who said she'd struggled to afford the school’s listed $12,100 cosmetology tuition, plus $1,600 in fees, and worried she might not to able to finish her coursework on time.

"There was a lot of panic," said Candice Jackson, who heads community relations at Empire, which operates schools throughout the country under its brand. "We were like, 'What are we going to do? What's happening? What's going on?'"

Faced with 85 students all working to complete up to 1,000 hours of in-class instruction, many of whom had taken out large student loans, the school’s board to directors met hastily at a local church to try to hash out a plan.

Two weeks later, 65 of Empire Brooklyn students, plus faculty and staff displaced by the fire, were  welcomed at Empire's sister location in Midtown on West 34th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues.

Jackson said  the Midtown school had recently renovated, opening up new space where the Brooklyn students could hold their classes as they try to rebuild.

"This was the only school that would house us," Russo conceded, grateful for the outstretched hand.

Brooklyn student Josephine Parisi, 23, said she was blown away by the warm embrace in Midtown and how quickly the groups have mixed.

"They've given us everything — all our new kits [to replace the ones that burned.] They offered us all new equipment," she said, expressing thanks.

Still, students who have moved said the leap to Midtown has had some bumps.

"It was an adjustment, of course. One student was like, 'What exit do I get off?” said Bond, who hopes to graduate this fall.

The surroundings can also be uncomfortably cramped (“We’re like ten pounds of potatoes in a five-pound bag,”  Russo joked) as the two-floor school welcomes test clients each day.

But staff said they're happy to accommodate for as long as it takes for the new school to rebuild.

 “Here we are, looking forward to a new beginning," Russo said.

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