HAMILTON HEIGHTS — The 15-year-old girl who died in a fast-moving fire in Hamilton Heights on Monday was a choir girl who dreamed of a career in medicine, friends and relatives said.
Melisa Mendez was with her father, Antonio Mendez Calderon, 74, in their home at 512 W. 136th St. when the fire started at 5:45 p.m. The two became separated trying to escape and she was overcome by smoke in the building's stairwell, fire officials said.
"My daughter was a star. I always supported her, my daughter. She was my everything," Calderon told DNAinfo New York in Spanish Tuesday afternoon after returning to the building with Melisa's sister, Solanges Mendez, 37, to gather some belongings. "With God we keep going."
Calderon said he lost his daughter while getting out of the building.
"She was following me and I think on the fifth floor she went back upstairs because she felt the fire was getting too strong."
The father was able to get out of the building through a fourth-floor fire escape.
Firefighters, who brought the blaze under control about two hours later, found her body on a sixth-floor landing, officials said. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
"I would imagine that she exited into the stairwell at a time when the fire was at its greatest and it did not take long for her to succumb to the heat and smoke once that happened," FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.
The fire was caused by an overloaded power strip under furniture in a first-floor apartment, the FDNY said.
"The reason it spread and the reason this young lady lost her life was that the occupant of the apartment on the first floor left the apartment and did not close the door behind," Nigro said.
The fire was initially considered suspicious because investigators weren't sure how it started, Nigro said. Further investigation revealed it was an overloaded power strip, not arson.
Twelve people were ultimately injured in the blaze that also displaced 100 people, including 10 families who needed emergency housing, according to FDNY and Red Cross officials.
Neighbors and relatives were shocked by Melisa's death Tuesday. They described her as a good student who lived with two older brothers and her father after emigrating from the Dominican Republic in 2010.
"She was always looking out for her dad. They were very close," said Melisa's niece Jeannie Mendez, 18.
"She was an honor roll student. She wanted to do something in medicine — maybe a doctor."
Melisa regularly attended the Catholic Church of the Annunciation, at 88 Convent Ave., where she sang in the choir.
"She was 15 years of age and always asking, 'Can I help with this? Can I help with that? She initiated songs in the church by herself. She was a beautiful singer," said the Rev. Jose Clavero.
"She was very happy, very nice. She just enjoyed life," said 23-year-old George Jimenez, who attends the same church and said the teen "was like a sister."
"She sang like an angel," he added.
The family is staying with relatives until they can return to the building.
Funeral arrangements have not been finalized, Calderon said.