Bronx Catholics came out in droves to assist with a community-wide clothing and food drive for survivors of a Dec. 28 apartment fire that claimed the lives of 12 people in their neighborhood, the deadliest in New York City in nearly three decades.
“The whole community came together,” said Father Cosme Fernandes, pastor of St. Martin of Tours parish, the Bronx, whose gymnasium of the former parish school—now rented to PS 51—was the main site of the Dec. 30 drive. The distance from the parish to the burned apartment building is about two and a half blocks.
The abundance of donations necessitated an auxiliary collection site at nearby Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the Bronx, where Father Jonathan Morris is pastor.
Father Eric Cruz, pastor of St. John Chrysostom, the Bronx, and Bronx regional coordinator of archdiocesan Catholic Charities, was also present at the drive, coordinated by the FDNY and NYPD, among others.
Although the drive was originally scheduled for a second day, it was cut short due to the volume of goods received.
“We could not even count” the number of the “overflowing, overwhelming” donations, Father Fernandes said in a telephone interview with CNY Jan. 2.
Clothing and shoes of all sizes to outfit children through adults, as well as bags of groceries and bundles of toys were among the generous goods that arrived as snow fell on Saturday.
Cardinal Dolan made a pastoral visit Dec. 31 to Engine 88-Ladder 38 at Belmont Avenue in the Bronx to show his solidarity with the firefighters who responded to the tragic fire.
One of the fire victims, Emmanuel Mensah, 28, a U.S. Army National Guard soldier who rescued others in the blaze before succumbing to the fire, had been a parishioner at St. Martin of Tours, Father Fernandes said. “He was bravely living his vocation, even in that moment. And that is very encouraging. At the same time, he sacrificed his own life to save someone.”
Additionally, a student in the parish religious education program at St. Martin of Tours and her family, who live in the apartment building, survived the fire without injury, according to Father Fernandes.
“They themselves were grateful for the blessing of life and, also, very sorrowful for the neighbors who passed away,” he said.
According to the FDNY, the five-alarm fire at 2363 Prospect Ave. was caused by a 3-year-old boy playing with stove burners. When the child’s mother was alerted to the fire, she grabbed him and another young child and exited the apartment, leaving the door open.
“The fire quickly spread up the stairs,” said Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro the next day. “The stairway acted like a chimney. It took the fire so quickly upstairs that people had very little time to react. They couldn’t get back down the stairs. Of those that tried, a few of them perished. Others were helped out onto the fire escapes, taken down by our members.”
An additional four patients were in critical condition at local hospitals. It was the worse loss of life in a single fire in more than 25 years—excluding Sept. 11, according to the FDNY.
“Although our firefighters got here in a little over three minutes, and bravely entered the building and did everything they could, and did save a number of residents, this loss is unprecedented,” Nigro said. “If, unfortunately, you do have a fire in your apartment, you must close the door when you exit.”
Father Morris of nearby Our Lady of Mount Carmel said that after the fire broke out Thursday night, he first went to St. Barnabas Hospital to visit the critically injured, and to console the families there; he later went to the Red Cross shelter, the fire house and the apartment building where the fire occurred.
Father Morris said he knew some of the victims’ families as parishioners. The parish is a few blocks away from the apartment building.
“I went straight to the hospital, because that’s where they were transporting them; at these moments what the families need most is presence, that we are there with them,” Father Morris said. “And we are going to be here for them in the long term. It is the ministry of presence, I would call it…Through this ordeal, I’ve gotten to know the families of the victims—the families of those who died, and the families of those who were injured.”
He said the parish is coordinating efforts with archdiocesan Catholic Charities for long-range assistance. “The needs of the families will be extensive—financially, spiritually and emotionally,” Father Morris said. “The Red Cross comes in the very first day and helps with immediate needs, and we are thankful for that. What we will do as a parish is provide long-term needs for the families.”
A community prayer service for the fire victims was offered at 7:15 p.m. Jan. 2 at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, the Bronx.
The congregation at St. Martin of Tours was somber throughout the four Masses Father Fernandes celebrated New Year’s weekend.
He consoled his people, and gently reminded them of the importance of not casting blame but to ask what they could do to support the suffering victims.
“We cannot assign blame to the 3-year-old or to God,” he said. “There’s no point in blaming. It’s how we heal.”
“Prayer has its own silent effect,” Father Fernandes told CNY in a phone interview the day after the fire.
“All the city coming around one building, or tenants coming around among one another, these are the unseen effects that prayer can bring about.”