A massive fire swept through a Hempstead Village apartment complex on Thursday, displacing about 300 residents on a bitterly cold day, fire investigators and local officials said.
It took some 200 firefighters about 90 minutes to get control of the blaze, Newsday reports. The fire started around 1:30 p.m. on the second floor of the 417-unit complex at 100 Terrace Ave., authorities said. Fifty-four apartments were destroyed. Residents in the northern wing, which has about 150 units, were not allowed to return to their apartments because utilities remained shut off, village officials said. Two people were treated at a hospital for minor injuries.
Resident Denira Ford saw smoke coming out of kitchen pipes in her fourth-floor apartment. As a maintenance man tried to determine the cause of the smoke, Ford “heard the crackling and my wall moved a little bit,” then she saw thick gray smoke and flames coming out of the air vent, according to Newsday. Residents had to flee their apartments in below-freezing temperatures with barely enough time to get their coats. The low temperatures and wind contributed to the difficulties for firefighters: the wind spread the fire, water froze, and firefighters suffered frostbite.
Investigators believe plumbers working in a vacant second-floor apartment may have sparked the fire with their blowtorches, according to Michael Uttaro, assistant chief fire marshal for Nassau County said. They suspect the blowtorches being used to weld pipes may have caused combustible material in the walls to catch fire, Newsday reports. Flames went up the walled-in spaces housing pipes before spreading into the air vents. Flames then moved to the attic and burned through the roof. More than 15 fire departments, worked to control the fire.
Emergency management officials set up an emergency shelter at Kennedy Memorial Park Recreation Center and later prepared to use Hempstead High School as an overnight shelter. The Red Cross expected up to 100 residents to stay there overnight. By dusk, Newsday reports, residents were allowed to return to two wings south of the burned wing.