Firefighters battle a blaze on Merrick Road in Baldwin Monday...

Firefighters battle a blaze on Merrick Road in Baldwin Monday night. (May 3, 2010) Credit: Bill Bennett

A major fire swept through a row of mixed-use buildings along Merrick Road in Baldwin Monday night, leaving at least 21 people homeless and damaging seven businesses, officials said Tuesday.

Seventeen fire departments and almost 200 volunteer firefighters battled the blaze, which began just before 11 p.m. and took hours to extinguish. A dozen firefighters were injured, none seriously.

None of the residents required hospitalization, though all had to be relocated by Red Cross, officials said.

"It's a serious blow to this area, to the business community, without a doubt," Nassau County fire marshal's office division supervisor Vincent McManus said.

"It's amazing that all the second-floor residents were able to escape," McManus said. "Thankfully, there were no serious injuries."

One firefighter was believed to have suffered a broken arm, while 11 others were treated at the scene for heat exhaustion.

Betty Warshaw, who for 11 years has lived in her apartment in one of the burned-out buildings, was in tears as she looked for her missing cat, Priscilla.

"I want to see if I can get into my apartment and find her," said Warshaw, who manages a Manhattan coffee shop.

The fire likely began in the basement of Pizza Garden at 95 Merrick Rd., then spread, McManus said. The cause of the blaze was not immediately known.

Joe Russo, owner of the New Old Venice Inn, a first-floor restaurant in the block that was damaged by fire, said the town was going to help improve the block with a new facade for buildings and new landscaping in the street. Now, he's not so sure he's going to remain.

"We'll have to see which way the chips fall," Russo said when asked if he would rebuild his restaurant.

Officials said portions of the roof were burned through and, in many areas, the roof collapsed. "Residents will not be allowed back in," McManus said. "It's an unsafe structure. It's unlikely they'll be allowed to return at all."

The Town of Hempstead's buildings department has designated the row of two-story attached buildings "unsafe for habitation," said town spokesman Mike Deery. He added that the town would expedite any demolition or building permits sought by landlords.

A spokesman for the Nassau County Red Cross said the organization had supplied more than $5,000 in assistance to the families displaced by the fire and was seeking donations to help families who now appear to have lost everything.

Spokesman Sam Kille said donations can be made at nassauredcross.org or by calling 516-747-3500.

- With Gary Dymski

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