Graham Rayman and Thomas Tracy
New York Daily News
NEW YORK — Plans to renovate a languishing, city-owned Harlem apartment building went up in smoke after a massive fire tore through the property Saturday morning — injuring almost two dozen firefighters battling the blaze in the frosty January air.
The flames erupted in an empty first-floor apartment at the W. 115th Street building — located about a half block from Morningside Park — around 7:30 a.m. as temperatures dropped to 20 degrees, officials said.
“I heard someone say ‘Fire! Fire!’ but I’m thinking like maybe it’s another building,” third-floor resident Samiya Robinson told the Daily News. “I opened the front door and it was just like smoking.”
Robinson, 21, alerted her family and her 88-year-old grandmother on the first floor before racing out of the building.
“When we came out and got to the front door, that first-floor apartment was just in flames,” she recalled. “The fire just destroyed everything in that apartment.”
Firefighters smashed windows on all the floors to ventilate the heat as smoke curled out of the openings.
“The fire quickly extended to all floors all the way up to the top floor,” FDNY Chief of Fire Operations Thomas Richardson said. “We wound up going eventually to a fourth alarm assignment.”
Shivering building residents left out in the cold boarded an MTA bus to warm up.
It took around 200 firefighters and Emergency Medical Service members to bring the fire under control by 10 a.m., said the FDNY.
The building is a shareholder-owned Housing Development Fund Corp. co-op run by the city Housing Preservation and Development Department, officials said.
After falling into disrepair for years, the six-story building was about to undergo a massive rehab, residents said. Only five families were staying inside as reconstruction began.
“We were supposed to be the last ones they relocated before they renovated,” resident Tawana Deaver, 45, said. “We should have been relocated by now and we wouldn’t have been in there for this.”
Four firefighters suffered serious, but non-life-threatening, injuries. Seventeen others suffered minor injuries. All were taken to nearby hospitals for treatment, EMS Deputy Assistant Chief Chris Bilz said.
“In these types of buildings, due to the construction, fire often does travel in the walls, through the floor, and sometimes it will what we call auto-expose with the fire coming out the windows and going into the windows above,” Richardson said.
The building construction may have created openings that helped the fire spread faster through the walls, a source said.
Robinson and her family were briefly allowed back in to pick up some belongings.
“They were saying we couldn’t be in there long to grab our stuff because they were saying it’s a bit unstable,” she said. “It’s just a really old building, that’s why the fire went so bad.”
The cause of the fire was under investigation Saturday.
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