Sateesh Nori speaks with the Queens Chronicle about Legal Aids response to a 5-alarm fire that displaced dozens of residents in Elmhurst last week.
In the aftermath, fire victims look for help
by Christopher Barca
April 20, 2017
Escaping a burning building in one piece is just the first step in surviving a fire that destroys one’s home and possessions. It’s a process that often takes weeks, if not longer, and a whole lot of outside help.
And in the case of last Tuesday’s five-alarm blaze that displaced 175 residents of 52-11 94 St. in Elmhurst, the relief and recovery effort is going to be even harder.
“This is one of the largest apartment fires that I’ve been involved with in my time here,” American Red Cross spokesman Michael Devulpillieres said in a Wednesday interview. “And I’ve been at the Red Cross 10 years now.”
In the immediate aftermath of the inferno, Devulpillieres said the Red Cross turned nearby PS 13 into a shelter, housing 13 displaced families the night of the blaze and 12 the next day.
Over the last week, PS 13 has also become a temporary Red Cross command center, where agency caseworkers met with residents of 111 of the 112 affected apartments— a total of about 300 people — to offer emergency housing and financial assistance, something many of them agreed to.
“The caseworkers help bridge them from their immediate needs to connecting them to longer term assistance,” the spokesman said.
Regarding housing, that help has come in the form of lodging displaced people in area hotels, an expense the city pays for.
According to the Office of Emergency Management, 36 apartments have been inspected and approved for rehabitation since the fire, with 24 families moving back in. But temporarily housing is something that a handful of families are still taking advantage of, Devulpillieres said.
The Red Cross also provided each displaced family who needed it with cash to purchase food and new clothes.
There are a number of tenants exploring their legal options as well, and that’s where The Legal Aid Society has come in.
Sateesh Nori, the attorney in charge of The Legal Aid Society’s Queens office, told the Chronicle on Tuesday that his colleagues have met with close to 70 tenants so far to get a sense of how they want to proceed.
Possible options, Nori said, include suing the building’s management, 56-11 94th Street Co., to ensure repairs are made quickly and rents are not raised.
“Everyone wants some action taken. Whether that’s a lawsuit or simply advocating on their behalf, we still don’t know,” Nori said. “If we sue, it’s simply to force the landlord to submit to a reasonable timeframe to conduct the repairs and, also, to keep the rent the same.”
Nori said Legal Aid hopes to hold a large-scale meeting with as many tenants as possible sometime this week to come up with a concrete plan of action.
This wouldn’t be the first time the agency has taken on the building’s management, as Nori said Legal Aid has brought a handful of cases on behalf of individual families to housing court in recent years. He declined to go into specifics about those cases.
One person who is certainly headed to court in the wake of the fire is Yonkers, NY independent contractor Declan McElhatton, who was arrested and charged last week with fourth-degree arson and second-degree reckless endangerment.
According to the criminal complaint against him, McElhatton was contracted to work on the building’s roof. The roofing materials he allegedly tried to apply are not supposed to be subjected to heat, and his alleged improper use of a blow torch started the fire.
The blaze quickly spread through the building’s cockloft — the common attic used to connect apartments — setting a number of residences on fire.
McElhatton’s next court date has been set for April 27. If convicted on both counts, he faces up to four years in prison.
This article was originally posted on Queens Chronicle.