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Man Killed in Chinatown Fire Made Frantic Phone Calls from Top-Floor Apartment

By Patrick Hedlund | April 13, 2010 9:19pm | Updated on April 13, 2010 9:23pm
The Grand Street apartment buildings that were gutted by the fire on Monday were boarded off from the street on Tuesday
The Grand Street apartment buildings that were gutted by the fire on Monday were boarded off from the street on Tuesday
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DNAinfo / Patrick Hedlund

By Patrick Hedlund

DNAinfo News Editor

CHINATOWN — As a fire swept through 285 Grand Street late Sunday evening, gaining in intensity and filling the building with smoke, 87-year-old Sing Ho frantically phoned relatives from his top-floor apartment for help.

Ho lived on the sixth floor with his daughter but was alone at the time of the blaze, a family friend said. He didn’t know where he should go to escape the fast-moving fire, so he began calling family members who could guide him in his native Cantonese.

“Nobody’s coming for me,” he told relatives as the smoke continued to thicken, according to his goddaughter, Nina Mar, who spoke to Ho’s daughter on Monday while family and friends were searching for him following the seven-alarm inferno.

With Ho still unaccounted for on Tuesday and relatives fearing the worst, firefighters entered his apartment late Monday night using a lift and discovered his body lying on a bed in the apartment.

“I don’t know if he would have dialed 911 because of the language barrier,” Mar said, trying to piece together what happened.

An NYPD source said that 911 does provide Chinese-speaking operators.

“A lot of times the elderly [think], ‘I’ve been here for so long, I lived a good life,’ ” she added of why Ho might have decided to simply lay down on his bed instead of trying to escape. “They don’t realize what’s left and what they can do, and they simply succumb to it.”

Ho’s daughter, also named Nina, could not be reached for comment as of Tuesday evening. His granddaughter was set to fly in from California early Tuesday to be with the family.

The family has also been working with Councilwoman Margaret Chin’s office to arrange a funeral for the man that, even at his late age, appeared to be very active.

At 87, Ho was still able-bodied, walking up and down six flights of stairs twice a day without the use of a cane or any other assistance, Mar said.

He also continued working as a chef up until a few years ago, traveling between Chinatown and Ithaca, N.Y., to cook for a restaurant in the upstate college town, she explained.

Food always played an important part in Ho’s life. He was an expert in traditional Cantonese cuisine and oversaw kitchens in Hong Kong and eventually the U.S., Mar said.

Ho landed in Cleveland in the early 1990s, bringing his cooking style to a city bereft of authentic Chinese restaurants, she added.

That’s where Ho met his soon-to-be goddaughter — Mar’s father had recognized the chef from his restaurants in Hong Kong — and the two families began what would become a nearly 20-year relationship.

“He was pretty well known [in Chinatown],” noted Mar, 45, a first-generation Chinese-American who still lives in Cleveland. She would regularly visit Ho in New York City, where he had always maintained a home despite working jobs in other cities, Mar said.

Ho had other children, both in the U.S. and in China, although a wife who remained in Hong Kong when he moved to America died a few years ago, Mar explained.

His life revolved around the neighborhood, a place too familiar and recognizable for him to ever leave, said his goddaughter. With his family, friends and entire social life based in Chinatown, he rarely had reason to travel outside the community.

Mar saw her goddfather as recently a few years ago on a short visit to New York City, where Ho insisted that she join him for at least two meals.

She also talked to him by phone over the Chinese New Year in February, the last time the two spoke.

“He led a very simple life,” Mar said, describing Ho as “soft-spoken” and “happy-go-lucky.”

“He was just a gentle man.”