More than 20 residents displaced by Port Washington blaze

About 100 firefighters were battling a blaze that broke out Thursday afternoon in a commercial-residential building on Herbert Avenue near Main Street, prompting the evacuation of residents and businesses. Videojournalist: Howard Schnapp and Jim Staubitser (March 14, 2013)

A fire raged for hours Thursday at a commercial and apartment building in Port Washington, displacing upward of 30 residents and several workers.

The blaze, reported at 1:20 p.m., burned through the day and despite the efforts of more than 100 firefighters from six departments, reignited at night, authorities said.

Investigators from the county fire marshal said the blaze started in the rear and appeared to be extinguished by 8:30 p.m., when they entered the residential portion of the building.


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"We got backed out because the fire lit back underneath us," said James Hickman, division supervisor of investigations at the fire marshal's office.

He said he plans to investigate reports of workers patching the roof with blowtorches just before the fire.

A firefighter and a National Grid worker were treated for minor injuries, Hickman said.

Thick smoke from the fire at the corner of Main Street and Herbert Avenue darkened the area in the afternoon. As children went home from school, they covered their faces with scarves. Crossing guards and police wore filtered face masks.

Dozens of residents and workers watched their homes and livelihoods burn in the three-story building, from families with young children to a barbershop owner.

"All my stuff is gone," said John Cleva, 22, who lived in a first-floor apartment.

Cleva, a chef in a Japanese restaurant in the building, was off work and asleep when he heard loud noises and police shouting, "Wake up! Wake up!"

He ran out in his sweatpants, T-shirt and Croc shoes. And as the hours went by, all he could do was watch the fire, his arms wrapped around him against the chill.

"I just grabbed my cellphone," said Cleva, adding he has no family to turn to in this country because they live in Japan. "What am I going to do?"

Not far off, the owner of Steve's Barbershop said he was cutting the hair of a firefighter when he stopped.

"Do you smell smoke?" Steve Aminov said he asked his client.

They did not see any smoke, but the firefighter ordered everyone in the shop to leave, Aminov said.

As firefighters tried to put out flames in a third-floor apartment, water poured down into the barbershop, its windows damaged.

"I have four kids at home," said Aminov, 45, of Forest Hills. "My wife is not working. I don't know what I'm going to do."

A firefighter also ran to the nearby Restaurant Yamaguchi and warned a full house of diners to evacuate.

"The guy started screaming, 'Everyone has to get out,' " recalled chef Yasu Matsue, 51.

John Miller, head of Red Cross on Long Island, said an overnight shelter was set up at the Port Washington senior center for 25 adults and six children, who came from seven of the 11 apartments damaged.

With Joseph Mallia

and John Valenti

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