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Hundreds evacuated in Hempstead fire

Firefighters battle a blaze in a Hempstead apartment

Firefighters battle a blaze in a Hempstead apartment building on Fulton Avenue. (June 17, 2012) Credit: Lou Minutoli

Hundreds of frightened residents were evacuated Sunday night -- some pulled out of windows when smoke filled their apartments -- as flames leaped up three floors of a large Hempstead Village building.

Witnesses recalled seeing residents of Fulton Manor with their heads out their open windows, screaming for help before firefighters came to their aid in high-rise ladder buckets.

"It was getting wild," said Mark Galeano, 17, who was outside the building on his way to get Chinese food when he saw black smoke billowing above. "It got heavy really quick."

A portion of the seven-story structure at 590 Fulton Ave. erupted in flames at 6:19 p.m. after a stove malfunctioned in a second-floor apartment, fire officials said. The cause remains under investigation.

About 30 people were taken to hospitals to be treated for smoke inhalation and two firefighters suffered heat exhaustion, said firefighter George Sandas, a former chief of the Hempstead Fire Department. No life-threatening injuries were reported.

The fire was "probably as bad as you're going to see," Sandas said, adding that some people were threatening to jump from their windows. "It's a very lucky day that we had no serious injuries."

Officials declared the fire contained around 8 p.m.

Fulton Manor resident Francis Wright, 71, said she was alerted to the blaze by a scream of "Fire!" A firefighter then helped her down the stairs.

"I smelled smoke and heard a knock on my door, so I got up and went out there," she said, sitting outside the building with her 21/2-year-old Jack Russell terrier mix, Marlow.

More than 300 firefighters from 30 volunteer departments responded to the scene. Four Nassau County buses shuttled about 100 evacuees to a temporary shelter set up at Hempstead High School.

Officials said they hoped to allow residents back into the building Monday. Sandas said about 12 apartments were uninhabitable.

Sam Kille, spokesman for the American Red Cross of Greater New York, said his organization late Sunday night was still determining how many families would need assistance.

"We're ready to provide comfort in what can be a really traumatizing time," Kille said.

At the high school, Gene Keller, 63, flipped through his camera phone quietly looking at images he shot of the fire.

"The hallway was full of smoke," Keller said. "It was pitch black. You could hardly see; you couldn't breathe."

Keller, who lives a floor above the fire's origin, said he was preparing dinner when he smelled smoke. Firefighters kicked down his door and said he had to leave immediately.

"I wish I would've known it was going to be this bad, I would have grabbed my medications," he said.

Hempstead Village Mayor Wayne Hall, speaking from the scene, credited the firefighters with controlling what he called the largest fire of his seven-year tenure.

"We're thankful this wasn't much worse. . . . This was a really, really big fire," he told Newsday.

The mayor said the initial stove fire started a "chain reaction" that engulfed many more units. Resident Donna Edgerson said the woman in the apartment where the fire started told her she simply tried to use her stove.

"She told me she went to turn her stove on and it just went, 'Boom!' " said Edgerson, 46, who added that the woman had moved in two days earlier with her four children.

As residents sat outside wrapped in blankets and sheets after the fire was extinguished, building security guard Antonio Richardson marveled that the evacuation had gone so smoothly.

"Some people were panicking," he said, "but for the most part, everybody got out OK."

With Laura Figueroa

and Nicole Fuller

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