Woodside families suffer twice after Jan. 8 blaze

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For Olga Penafiel and her husband Tacito, an ordeal that began when they nearly died in an apartment fire did not end once firefighters brought them to safety.

When the couple awoke last week to discover their fourth-floor Woodside apartment hazy with smoke, Olga Penafiel groped blindly through the darkened room to find a way out after the stairwell — red from the heat — proved impassable.

“I’m dying, tell them to help me,” she screamed to a neighbor across the courtyard after sucking in a breath through a small opening in the window.

The Penafiels survived, thanks to the bravery of firefighters from Rescue 4 who carried them down the frame of a collapsed stairwell as it continued to fall apart on top of them. They suffered scrapes and bruises as well as smoke inhalation burns, but made it out without major injuries.

But the struggle is hardly over for the Penafiels and eight other families who were displaced by the Jan. 8 fire at the Cosmopolitan apartment complex at 47-15 48th St. in Woodside. The blaze spared most of their apartments but destroyed the stairwell, which means they will be homeless for months until the building is repaired.

When they were allowed back into their homes by way of the fire escape the next day to pick up some belongings, many residents found the apartments had been stripped of their most valuable possessions.

“They got rich in my apartment just by my jewelry,” said Olga Penafiel, 52, whose son discovered the thefts the day after the fire. “He said there was nothing there.”

Alexandra Calderon, a college student who lived in a third-floor apartment with her parents and two siblings, said two cell phones, three CD players, jewelry and $7,000 in cash were lifted from her residence.

“She was shocked,” Alexandra Calderon said, translating from Spanish for her mother Silvia. “She wanted to die because that was the only savings she had.”

Silvia Calderon filed a report with police at the 108th Precinct the day after the fire, an NYPD spokeswoman said.

The families complain they have received no compassion from the manager at Cosmopolitan, who refused to comment when contacted for an interview.

The manager “told us that it’s not his responsibi­lity,” Alexandra Calderon said of the thefts.

Most of the families are living now at the Metro Motel on Queens Boulevard on the city’s tab Their temporary housing is being provided by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which ordered the families to vacate their apartments, and they are being assisted by the American Red Cross.

Many of the people displaced by the fire contend the manager has refused to allow them to rent other apartments in the extensive complex, even though they have been told at least 20 units are available.

“He told us that it’s not his problem where we live during the six to seven months that it will take for them to fix that,” Alexandra Calderon said as she gathered in a motel room Monday night with her neighbors affected by the fire. “We’re not animals, we’re human beings, and it’s really horrible what he said to us.”

But the manager has promised they can return to their apartments once repairs are completed if they pay $1 in rent each month, they said.

According to Carol Abrams, a spokeswoman for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the manager is acting properly under the law.

“There is a legal requirement for them to (be able to) return to their apartments when they are ready to be inhabited again,” Abrams said. “But there are no legal requirements for him to place them elsewhere with vacancies at other buildings.”

Abrams said her agency is working with the manager to find permanent housing for the displaced families and possibly relocate some of them to units within the complex.

But that is little consolation to the families who are currently trying to transform motel rooms into adequate living quarters, surviving on fast food because they have no kitchens.

“We’re homeless now and I have a little sister,” said Alexandra Calderon, who has given up hope of retrieving the stolen items but simply wants her family to return home as soon as possible. “It’s just horrible what we’re going through.”

“I’m feeling terrible,” Olga Penafiel said. “I’ve got trauma. I’m sick.”

But despite the trouble that followed her out the burning building, Penafiel said she is grateful for the life she would have lost without the help of a firefighter she does not know.

“I want to kiss him, to tell him God bless him,” Penafiel said. “I wish all the best for him and his family, because he saved my life. I owe him my life.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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