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Family Trapped in East 118th Street Fire Thankful to Be Alive

By  Natalie Musumeci and Mary Johnson | September 25, 2012 7:27am 

EAST HARLEM — The 2-month-old infant injured when a raging fire ripped through an East 118th Street building was back with his family Monday — and his grateful mom knew how lucky she was that her baby boy survived.

Faye Melendez said the baby, Corey, who blacked out during the massive fire Sunday, in an apartment building near First and Pleasant avenues, is now safe and healthy, along with the rest of her family.

"All I'm thinking is that life is short,” said Melendez, 23. “I want to spend every minute with my family. You can have it all, but it can all disappear like that.

"I'm sad for everyone that lost their things,” she added. “But we could have lost our lives."

When the fire broke out on the third floor of 434 E. 118th St. about 6:30 p.m. that evening, Melendez was at the store with her brother, leaving her grandmother, Jovita Rodriguez, 68, at home with Corey and his 2-year-old brother, Carlos.

By the time Melendez arrived home, residents were already streaming out of the building, screaming about the fire.

"As I started running up the stairs, I was devastated. At the second floor, there was all black smoke,” Melendez recalled. "The smoke was so thick, I would have suffocated. It took my breath away."

Inside her apartment, Rodriguez heard the smoke alarm but thought it had been set off by children playing in the hall. When she saw smoke seeping in from underneath the front door, she shepherded the children to a back room, next to a window.

“I opened the window and more smoke started to come in. I didn't know where to run,” Rodriguez recalled. "It was getting so hard to breathe. All I kept thinking was how I'm going to manage to get out with the kids."

As Melendez worked her way up to her apartment, the smoke grew so thick that she couldn’t mount the stairs. She headed up to the roof, climbed down a fire escape and into her apartment, and ushered her family into a closet.

"I didn't know where the fire was at, but I knew that I had to get to my family. My first instinct was that I'm going to die with them. They are my life," Melendez recalled. “I called 911 and told them that we are going to die here."

Several minutes later, fire crews burst into the room and saved them. Melendez went to Harlem Hospital with her son, where they were sent into a chamber to clear the smoke from his lungs. Carlos and Rodriguez were not injured.

It took more than 100 firefighters to bring the blaze under control, fire officials said, and six people, including Corey, were injured.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, a fire department spokesman said.

The burnt-out apartment still reeked of smoke Monday afternoon. The windows were busted out, and many of the family’s belongings were destroyed.

They currently don’t have anywhere to stay. Melendez said she called the Red Cross but that they need to speak to a social worker.

Melendez and her family were not the only ones to lose a home in the blaze. Many families were throwing away their smoke-damaged and waterlogged belongings on Monday.

Agnes Griffin, 64, who has lived on the fifth floor of the building since 1971, was piling her ruined belongings into garbage bags. Her dog, a pug named Storm, died in the blaze.

But Griffin and her 6-year-old granddaughter, Mia, managed to make it out alive.

"I don't know what I feel now,” Griffin said. “I'm just thanking God that me and my neighbors got out."