From The New York Times: By Fernanda Santos
There were a Russian liquor seller, an Ecuadorean manicurist and a Dominican barber. There was Thomas Kourakos, 83, who is from Greece and who opened his shoe-repair shop in 1956. And there was Maria Solano, 54, who is from Peru and who opened her party-favor store in 2006.
Along 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, from 84th Street to 85th Street, a diverse global cast toiled every morning in an equally diverse collection of neighborhood stores.
They could count on the Uruguayan furniture salesman to shovel the sidewalk after snowstorms, on the Ecuadorean accountant for financial advice and on one another for companionship.
Yolanda Mitsis, 59, a Colombian aesthetician who had a skin-care clinic on the block, described their relationship as “una cadenita,” or a little chain. But that chain was broken Saturday morning when flames, water and smoke pulverized 8 of the 15 stores on the block.
“I used to say hi every morning, when they walked by,” Alex Chin, 59, a Chinese dry cleaner whose shop was spared by the fire, said of the people whose businesses were destroyed. “It feels very lonely without them.”
A malfunctioning boiler inside a furniture store between Mr. Chin’s and Mr. Kourakos’s shops sparked a blaze that raged for four hours, forcing the evacuation of a neighboring apartment building and requiring 168 firefighters to bring under control, officials said.
No one was seriously injured, but the flames left a crater of mangled metal and charred brick in the heart of a commercial strip that has offered many immigrants a foothold in a new city.
For the lucky ones, like Mr. Chin and Abdul Rahim, an Afghan who owns a fabric store on the block, life goes on. Those not so lucky lost pretty much all they had.
“Everything I had saved I invested in this store,” said Robinson Valderrama, 30, who is from Colombia and who last year opened a clothing shop, Stylus Boutique, in a storefront facing 84th Street. He has a 9-year-old son, a 21-month-old daughter and a 7-year-old stepdaughter. His wife is unemployed, and the store was their only source of income, he said.
Mr. Valderrama did not have insurance. Ms. Mitsis thought she had insurance, but said that when she called to check on Tuesday, she found out that her policy had lapsed. Ms. Solano had coverage but said it would not offset her losses.
Then there are people like Amada Sánchez, 51, the manicurist from Ecuador, who rented a work station at La Pelukeria, a hair salon. She accepted only cash and kept it at work, in a small cardboard box that she emptied every Saturday at the end of her shift, she said.
“I had worked like crazy all week because of Valentine’s Day, but the fire burned my money,” Ms. Sánchez said dejectedly, estimating that she probably had $1,000 in the box. She said the fire also burned her nail polishes, nail drying machines and the rest of her equipment.
Very little has been recovered from the debris. A contractor in charge of the demolition said his crew had salvaged seven helium tanks and a cash register from Ms. Solano’s party-favors store, Lalita’s, with $1,400 inside. They also retrieved a filing cabinet and a safe from the liquor store, facial vaporizers from Ms. Mitsis’s clinic and a pair of pedicure chairs from the hair salon.
“I would love to have the businesses that were destroyed come back, but to be honest, I don’t know if it’s going to happen,” said Councilman Daniel Dromm, who represents the neighborhood and who spent much of the weekend at the fire scene. “This was devastating to people’s lives.”
Their loss is more than just material. Mr. Kourakos, the cobbler, was working in the back of his shop when flames erupted next door. Because he is hard of hearing, he did not know that Ms. Solano and her husband, Julio Aragón, had been calling out his name, unsure if he was still inside.
Ms. Solano said Mr. Aragón visited Mr. Kourakos every morning after he had helped her roll up Lalita’s gates. If a Spanish-speaking client needed Mr. Kourakos’s services, Mr. Aragón helped translate. If Mr. Kourakos had to bring a heavy box into his shop, Mr. Aragón would carry it. If Mr. Kourakos had trouble pulling nails from the heels of a shoe, Mr. Aragón would do it for him.
Mr. Aragón dashed inside Mr. Kourakos’s shop, Tom’s Shoe Repair, even as smoke and flames threatened to overpower him. Mr. Kourakos emerged wearing an apron smeared with shoe wax. His winter jacket, keys and all the machines and memories he had amassed in more than five decades had been left behind.
“I don’t know what he’s going to do,” his daughter Jeannie Kourakos said. “He went there to work, but he had a social life with the people who worked around him. They’d come in, bring him a doughnut; they stopped by to say hello. He’s going to miss his friends.”