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150 People in Limbo After Hamilton Heights Blaze Sparked by Air Conditioner

By Jeff Mays | July 23, 2013 5:15pm
 After a five-alarm fire ripped through the top floor of a building at 520 W. 139th Street Monday all 41 units have been evacuated, displacing at least 150 people, according to the American Red Cross.
Families Displaced by Hamilton Heights Fire
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HARLEM — Isabel Diaz has lived for decades at 520 W. 139th St., surrounded by her relatives and family friends. In the apartments above and below hers are the uncles, aunts, cousins and friends that she grew up with.

"We are all family in that building. We live as a family and help each other," said Diaz, 56, a housekeeper whose family has lived in the building since the 1960s.

But after a massive fire sparked by an air conditioner ripped through the top floor of the building Monday, all 41 units have been evacuated and at least 150 people displaced, according to the American Red Cross.

"All of my family is homeless right now. That's the reality," said Diaz. "We have nothing."

The Department of Buildings has issued a vacate order due to shaking and instability caused by the fire, according to city records. Outside, workers have begun erecting scaffolding to brace it.

The American Red Cross has set up a reception center at P.S. 192 on West 138th Street to provide displaced families emergency help, said Sam Kille, a spokesperson for the group. Most families found a place to sleep on their own but 21 people were put up in hotels.

Community Board 9 Chair Rev. Georgiette Morgan-Thomas was not pleased with the pace of families being helped and was on scene last night and this afternoon to help coordinate donations.

Restaurants such as Jacob's and El Barrio's have donated food. H & C  Chemist donated basic prescription pills such as high blood pressure medicine to families who were locked out of their apartments. Local bodegas donated coffee Tuesday morning.

"We are going to help the Red Cross do better in our community," said Morgan-Thomas as someone brought a playpen donated by El Mundo Department Store.

Kille said the Red Cross has been taxed lately because of the heat-wave and related fires and the incident at LaGuardia Airport Monday night when an airplane's landing gear collapsed.

"Any time a large incident like this happens there is a lot of chaos and confusion and people are understandably scared," said Kille. "We are encouraging anyone who needs assistance because of this incident to come meet with caseworkers.

Occupants of the apartment where the fire started say an air conditioner burst into flames. Diaz said the lights often flicker in her apartment and she'd like the building's electrical work checked before anyone is allowed back in.

According to the FDNY, the fire was caused by an air conditioner that was plugged into an overloaded outlet.

A violation was issued in 2006 for exposed electrical wiring in a different apartment, but buildings department records list the problem as resolved.

The building has a few other open violations and complaints relating mainly to elevator service and the boiler, according to records from the Department of Buildings.

The uncertainty of the situation was getting to some of the families.

"It's hard, psychologically, dealing with this," said Lorenzo Ortiz, 54, a store supervisor, who lives with his wife Francia, 43, a daycare worker and two other relatives in the apartment.

Sareo Anderson, 72, a retired mechanic, milled around the gym at P.S. 192 waiting to hear when he would be let back into the ground floor apartment he has lived in since 1966.

"I can't believe it. I lived all my life here since I came to this country. All my kids were born here," he said. "I would be very sad if I have to leave."