Devoe Street Fire Survivors Strive to Rise from the Ashes

Help from family, friends, and fundraisers stoke hope for new year

Although the fire originated in 65 Devoe Street it spread to 63 and 67 Devoe Street.  All three buildings have full vacate orders. photo credit: Lori Ann Doyon

On the night of Thanksgiving, the top floor of three-story 65 Devoe Street went ablaze. The fire spread to two neighboring buildings, leaving six out of 170 firefighters on the scene injured and 12 tenants displaced.

Among these tenants included Joseph Sciorra, Director of Academic and Cultural Programs at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, and his wife, Zulma Ortiz-Fuentes. They found out about the fire through being alerted and didn’t see any smoke inside, but they describe the first emotions they felt seeing the scene from outside as shock, incredulity, and despair.

“When I saw the flames shoot out at the top 3 windows, my heart sank. It was really over, there was no hope that it was going to spare us,” Joseph said. “We had lived 30 years in that apartment and had been living in the neighborhood for 40 years. To be suddenly displaced is difficult.”

Notices posted to the 65 Devoe Street’s front door. photo credit: Lori Ann Doyon

The pair are currently living at a hotel and started looking for an apartment about a week after the incident, but luck is scarce. They’ve had no choice but to look outside of the neighborhood due to how expensive it is, and apartments have been looking limited in terms of space.

“We’re realizing now how precarious it is for renters,” Zulma said. “We’re lucky we had renter’s insurance or we’d be camping out on someone’s couch. Rental marketing in New York City is very discouraging.”

The cause of the fire hasn’t been made known to the public, but it was big enough to set off four alarms. Water, soot, and asbestos spread throughout Joseph and Zulma’s apartment which made it unlivable. Much of what they had was damaged including their washing machine, stove, and a brand-new bed and couch.

Among the things they did manage to retrieve were a few personal items such as family photos, letters they exchanged when they met, and Joseph’s prized Christmas nativity figurines.

A recent layout of Joseph Sciorra’s elaborate nativity scene. Features on his nativity scene have been published in the New York Times and other media outlets   

“Each year I create a very elaborate nativity scene that has even received media attention. Here in the hotel room, I’ve created a very tiny version of what I used to create in my apartment.”

Joseph Sciorra maintained his holiday tradition of creating a nativity scene, on a smaller scale though full of the spirit of Christmas

Another family affected by the Devoe Street fires was local photographer Alexa Hoyer and her partner James who lived right below Joseph and Zulma. They had just moved in to the apartment 3 weeks prior to the fire after 14 years of living in their old Greenpoint home.

Alexa and James were away visiting friends for Thanksgiving when the tragedy unfolded and recalled being both confused and in shock by the texts she received from her neighbors that alerted her.

“I lost quite a lot,” she said. “The fire went through Joseph and Zulma’s apartment to ours and made holes in the living room and kitchen. The ceiling was collapsed and most of the furniture was damaged due to water, debris, and asbestos.”*

Alexa was able to save some artwork and valuables, but much of what she and James thought was salvageable ended up being deemed unsafe due to asbestos or damaged from mold and other aftereffects. Still in all, she said she is glad no residents got hurt.

The couple have been living with friends and moving around often since they don’t have renter’s insurance, but fortunately, they just signed a lease for a new apartment and credit the recent move for what made finding a new place easier.

“We’re looking forward to this new apartment and are trying not to let this ruin 2022. We’re just taking it day by day. It’s gonna be a new start,” Alexa said.

She and James have received a lot of generosity from friends and plan on spending the holidays with the same friends they spent Thanksgiving with.

As for Joseph and Zulma, they are able to start to rebuild knowing they have each other and their son who is living next door to them, as well as family and friends who have offered their emotional support and love.

“I’m Italian and my wife is Puerto Rican, and in both in Italian and Spanish there’s a saying called new year, new life. Año nuevo, vida nueva and anno nuovo, vita nuova,” Joseph said. “We’re hoping that 2022, both in our apartment search and in the global pandemic, will bring a good new year.”

To lend your support to the victims of the fire, you can find each of their Go Fund Me links at @DevoeFire on Linktree.

*CORRECTION: Original quote by Alexa Hoyer was updated upon request to include that the majority of damage to her apartment wasn’t caused by the fire itself, but by the aftereffects of the fire.

Author: Kassondra Gonzalez

Communications Associate and Contributor of the Greenline.

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