HAMILTON HEIGHTS — A 15-year-old girl died in a massive fire that forced the evacuation of a six-story Hamilton Heights apartment building Monday evening, officials said.
Melisa Mendez was found on a sixth-floor stair landing after flames erupted inside 512 W. 136th St., near Amsterdam Avenue, about 5:45 p.m. and engulfed several floors of the building, relatives and officials said.
Melisa, who relatives said was an excellent student who aspired to a career in medicine, was pronounced dead at the scene.
"She was an honor-roll student. She wanted to do something in medicine, maybe become a doctor," said relative Jeannie Mendez, 18.
Twelve people were injured by the time about 280 firefighters brought the deadly blaze under control at 7:37 p.m., FDNY officials said.
"The biggest challenge was that it extended so quickly," said FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro during a press conference, adding that five hoses needed to be stretched around the building.
Fire marshals initially believed that the cause of the blaze was suspicious based on how quickly it spread, Nigro said.
Nery Rodriguez, 44, who lives on the fourth floor with his parents and children said he was working on 109th Street and Amsterdam Avenue when he heard about the fire.
"I ran here when they told me my mother could not get out of the building," he told DNAinfo New York in Spanish.
His mother and children were out of the building by the time Rodriguez arrived — his daughter had run outside without shoes and his son was crying because he didn't know where they would sleep, he said.
"I just hugged and kissed them because they were alive," he said. "Life is the most important thing. Material things don't matter."
Another fourth-floor resident, Sandra Delacruz, 45, got out of the building with her chihuahua, Lucky, and her mother.
"My mother was panicking, but we're OK. I don't have my keys. I don't have my phone. I don't have nothing," she said. "I just have my shoes, my dog and my family."
Fire officials said buildings next to 512 West 136th St. were evacuated as necessary.
Alex Arias, 36, was evacuated from his building next door at 510 West 136th St. He said he got out of his building with his kids when he heard the windows next door break.
"The flames were coming out of the windows," Arias said.
The American Red Cross was also at the scene. A spokesman said the organization would make sure emergency needs — including housing, emotional and health support, food and water — were met for those affected by the fire.
With reporting by Trevor Kapp and Murray Weiss.