Getting Help after Richmond Hill Blaze

Sen. James Sanders, right, was joined at the March 9 meeting by Assembly member David Weprin, Pandit Lakhram R. Maharaj, founder of the Tulsi Mandir, and Savitri Gebodh who helped alert her neighbors to the fire so they could escape safely. (Photo via Sen. Sanders’ Office)

When Pandit Lakhram R. Maharaj arrived Sunday at Tulsi Mandir, a Hindu house of worship on 111th Street in Richmond Hill where he leads services, he saw police and firefighters outside, the first sign that something terrible had happened down the street.

A storefront destroyed in the March 4 blaze in Richmond Hill. (Photo by Roshan Abraham for Voices of NY)

A block of stores on one side of Liberty Avenue had been destroyed the night before by a blaze that began at 11 p.m., bringing out hundreds of firefighters and leaving more than 20 residents displaced.

By Sunday afternoon, people displaced by the fire were gathered in the basement of Tulsi Mandir, which quickly became an emergency hub for civic leaders, first responders, and local elected officials to meet with displaced business owners and residents. Donations piled up on tables in the corner – sweaters, jackets, pants and canned goods.

Civic leaders from the predominantly Guyanese community were making phone calls from within Tulsi to elected officials to try to bring more city agencies to the scene. They were concerned that Richmond Hill residents affected by the Liberty Avenue fire would not get needed attention from city agencies without a coordinated effort.

“We want to see our elected officials more responsive to tragedies,” said Richard David, 31, an activist from the community and founder of Indo-Caribbean Alliance who is running for a City Council seat in District 28.

He said that he was a few blocks away when the fire began the night before and heard helicopters, but was alarmed by the scene he saw when he arrived on Sunday morning.

“I’m shocked at how many people were affected,” David said.

David was at Tulsi making a list of things that people displaced by the fire would need, including jackets, sweaters, and warm clothing.

Vishnu Mahadeo, head of the Richmond Hill Economic Development Corporation, echoed a dissatisfaction with the response time of elected officials.

“When you start rocking the boat, you get attention,” he said.

Attorney Hettie Powell (r.), who is running for the Richmond Hill City Council seat, helping distribute clothes to people affected by the fire. (Photo by Roshan Abraham for Voice of NY)

By Sunday at 3 p.m., David and Mahadeo managed to bring two of their elected representatives to Tulsi, state Sen. James Sanders and Assemblymember Michael Miller. Sen. Sanders will be holding an emergency meeting at Tulsi Mandir on Thursday, March 9.

Vashti Ramlogan and Judy Rackal are the co-owners of Theresa Home Care, whose storefront was destroyed in the blaze. On Sunday morning they were huddled in a 99 cent store on Liberty Avenue, across the street from the destroyed row of stores and apartments, watching firefighters put out the lingering flames in the charred storefronts. Their office had been open only eight months.

The owners were “back and forth” getting inspections, said Ramlogan, staring at their store’s facade, “and now this.” Later in the day she and her business partner Rackal were able to sit down and get their bearings at Tulsi Mandir. They spoke to Mahadeo about possible spaces in which to temporarily re-open their offices.

City officials say no one died in the blaze, which is still under investigation, but many lost all their belongings. Prem Vissessar, a construction worker whose apartment was destroyed in the blaze, said he’d be staying in the Holiday Inn for two nights, along with his wife and nephew. It will be paid for by the Red Cross.

While he was not permitted back into his apartment due to structural damage, he said that as far as he knew everything he owned was gone.

“What I have on now is all I have,” Vissessar said, gesturing to his clothing.

Volunteers at Tulsi Mandir unpacked donated clothing and offered it to Vissessar, who tried on a shirt.

Until those displaced can get relocated Maharaji has assured anyone affected by the blaze that there will be a place for them to convene.

“I’m going to give them space to use for as long as they need,” he said.

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