New York News

Taking Precautions for Fires Can Mean Life or Death

A memorial outside Holy Child Jesus Catholic Academy in Richmond Hill, Queens, remembering Silvia Umana and her children, Gilbert and Guadalupe, who lost their lives in an accidental house fire. (Photo: Allyson Escobar)

Elmhurst, Queens — First, there was a loud popping sound. Then crackling, followed by the faint smell of something burning.

Monina Calderon, a nurse and mother of three, was in her Elmhurst home in late 2014, watching TV in the living room when she heard a loud noise, which she described as sounding like “popcorn in the microwave.”

“We thought my daughter was upstairs throwing things — then all of a sudden my husband and son, who were working outside in the yard, were yelling,” Calderon, a parishioner at Church of the Ascension in Elmhurst, told The Tablet. “Get out of the house! They were screaming, ‘There’s a fire in the attic!’ And we ran out, and there was smoke and fire spewing out the upstairs window.”

Calderon says that what she remembers most about that day was the instant fear, as well as gratitude that her whole family was able to get out safely, as the entire upstairs part of her home was burning. Firefighters later determined the cause: a frayed electrical cord (short circuit) in the attic.

“There’s nothing more I wish my family and I could have done in this situation. We were just thankful that the fire occurred in broad daylight with everyone awake, and nobody on the second floor,” said Monina’s daughter, Alexis. “If anything, it taught me that no matter how prepared you think you are for an emergency, you have to stay alert.” 

Fires in New York City happen fairly often, causing widespread damage, displacement from homes and, sometimes, tragedy.

The FDNY reported over 600,000 incidents in 2018, including 173,072 in Brooklyn and 121,216 in Queens. Last year, fires killed 88 people, the most in over a decade, according to FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro.

Officials say the leading causes are faulty electrical equipment and smoking. In more than two-thirds of fatal fires, there is no working smoke alarm.

A house fire in Richmond Hill on July 21, caused by a damaged air conditioner, claimed the lives of a mother and two of her children, parishioners at nearby Holy Child Jesus Church. Officials didn’t find a working smoke alarm in the home.

“It’s just, you get so many of these funerals, and it just gets to you after a while,” said Msgr. John Delendik, who has served as FDNY’s chaplain for 23 years, and is now pastor of St. Jude’s in Canarsie. “I love the job, but I also hate it.”

Fires can be preventable. Retired FDNY chief James Bullock defines fire safety as “stopping the fire before it can happen.”

Bullock said often too much electrical power comes from one outlet in rooms where fires commonly occur, such as the kitchen, laundry room, boiler room and entertainment room.

“Have electricians come in and install a new outlet; don’t keep on using an extension cord,” Bullock advised. “Those are temporary, and not meant to be permanent … And when it comes to air conditioners, make sure [the wires are] connected to a proper outlet and not going to overheat. You also don’t want to run extension cords underneath the rug. They wear out and the wires can fray, and then that causes a fire. And my opinion, never use candles.”

If a fire does occur in the home, Bullock adds, “think about having [an escape] plan ahead of time, not on the day of the fire, and practice it.

When it comes to fire escapes and child gates/bars on the windows, make sure these are still easily accessible from the inside. If locked, the only exit should not be obstructed or require a key.

“Once you’re out of the building and the building’s on fire, do NOT go back in — wait for the fire department. If someone is missing, tell them. Don’t go back inside, or there’ll be two people missing instead of one,” Bullock said.

Asmar Jones, a FDNY firefighter with Ladder 150 in Hollis, is assigned to the fire safety department, which provides free smoke detectors. He said people should have multiple working smoke alarms in their homes.

“It’s [a matter of] life or death — carbon monoxide is odorless, tasteless. So even a few drops of CO, you won’t wake up. Early detection is so important, or by the time you wake up, it’s too late,” Jones said. “Families can call us or the Red Cross and receive [smoke alarms] for free; we’ll come to their apartment or home to install them if they live within the city compounds.”

Jones also suggested purchasing a small fire extinguisher, which proves especially useful in fire-prone places like the kitchen.

Most important: Have an escape plan, Jones said.

“In case of a fire so that everybody knows an alternate way out and a meeting place — where they will go and meet in case of emergency. If you’re in an apartment, you’ll want to meet somewhere outside. A perfect meeting place is around the corner, where there’s a call box to call the FDNY or police, and kids can wait there for their family members,” he said.

Rebuilding not just homes, but lives 

As fire victim families like the Calderons continue to rebuild their home, they said they were grateful to have property insurance to help them quickly claim fire and water damages. 

“A standard homeowners’ insurance policy not only covers damage to the home’s structure but also the homeowner’s personal property,” Michael Barry, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute, told Consumer Reports

After insurance company adjusters assess total damages, reimbursement should help cover the cost of repairing or replacing your home and belongings, and will depend on the kind of coverage families have.  

Property insurance should help pay the value of the home and damaged items inside. The Insurance Information Institute suggests keeping a “home inventory,” which shows the receipt value of personal items. 

“Pay attention to what you own. Less is more. Having insurance and the right people around you is so important. After [going through] a fire, you’re more cautious because you learned the hard way,” added Monina Calderon, after sharing that her family’s fire insurance claims process was “lengthy.”

“Sometimes you question how this happened…but have patience. You learn to lean on your faith.” 

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