NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – Firefighters are still at the scene of a devastating fire in Chinatown that gutted a well-known community center.
The fire broke out late Thursday night.
One man was seriously injured. Several firefighters were slightly hurt.
Firefighters are battling a 3-alarm fire in a City-owned building in Chinatown, just across from Columbus Park.
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) January 24, 2020
Residents have been coming by in disbelief, reported CBS2’s Aundrea Cline-Thomas. Those who live in the area say the building is the centerpiece of the community.
Firefighters remained on the scene throughout the morning putting out the stubborn fire at 70 Mulberry Street.
“We grew up here in Chinatown, so it’s a very important part of the community,” said area resident Steven Chin. “It’s pretty devastating to see this fire going on.”
The building was once a school and was transformed into a hub for Chinese-American culture and resources. It includes a senior center where 200-300 people a day are given a warm meal and a place to socialize. The building is also home to a dance center, museum, immigrant services organization and lots of history.
“Unfortunately, because of the fire, we’re not sure if we have a future home for them, so we don’t know the extent of the damage or what to expect next,” said Edgar Pereira, Chief Programming Officer for the Chinese-American Planning Council.
Flames erupted from the fourth floor of the building around 8:45 p.m. Thursday and spread to the fifth floor, then the roof. At its height, 200 fire and emergency personnel were on scene.
Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said the quickly spread through the roof of the five-story building, making it too dangerous for firefighters to be inside, so they moved to an exterior attack.
“It went out of the fourth floor windows, into the fifth floor windows, extended quite rapidly and quite rapidly through the roof of almost the entire structure,” he said. “So it’s very heavily damaged.”
A 59-year-old man suffered smoke inhalation and had to be rescued from the building.
“He was out a window, and they were able to remove him from the building with the tower ladder,” said FDNY Chief of Operations Tom Richardson.
Devastating fire on 70 Mulberry St. which houses several Chinatown community groups. We're told there's one serious civilian injury in the nearby building where the fire spread.
— Margaret S. Chin (@CM_MargaretChin) January 24, 2020
The building conditions, especially on the roof, made it a difficult fire to fight. That’s why firefighters continued to douse the building more than 12 hours later.
Despite the overwhelming damage, residents hope what the building represents in the community can be salvaged.
“It’s heartbreaking. It’s devastating in the sense that so much rich history is – I’m not sure if it’s lost completely – but because of the fire, damaged or lost,” Pereira said.
“This is not just the story of Chinatown,” said Nancy Yao Maasbach, president of Museum of Chinese in America. “This is the story about Chinese immigration to this country, and what we have been striving to do is tell these stories because they’re not in U.S. textbooks.”
Eight firefighters suffered non-life threatening injuries.
As for the man who was rescued, he was in critical condition at the hospital.
“I went to elementary school back in the early 60s, and ever since they closed that school, the community has fought a long time to get that building turned over by the city for multi-use for nonprofits and stuff,” said Chan.
“Obviously, it’s a very important cultural and community institution,” New York State Sen. Brian Kavanaugh said.
New York City Councilwoman Margaret Chin said her office will work with the nonprofits to find them alternate spaces until they learn when they can go back inside the building.
“70 Mulberry is the building where I went to school, P.S. 23, after my family immigrated to New York from Hong Kong in 1963,” she said in a statement. “It has been an anchor in the Chinatown community for generations, serving as home to community groups like Chinatown Manpower Project (CMP), Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), United East Athletics Association (UEAA), Chen and Dancers, and Chinese American Planning Council (CPC) senior center to provide cultural and youth programming, workforce development, and critical senior services.”
Those stories are a part of a collection and archive at the Museum of Chinese in America that has called 70 Mulberry Street home for decades.
“We will restore it,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio on Friday. “You will see it just like it looks today. It will be back.”
To make matters worse, this all happened just before Lunar New Year on Saturday.
“The celebration will continue OK because we have to celebrate a new beginning, because we are going to rebuild,” said Chin.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.