By Bill Strachan
Deputy Chief, Manhattan District 3 CERT (Chinatown-Lower East Side-East Village CERT)
We don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing the time and place an emergency may occur. Frequently, we will go for long periods without even being called up for “stand-by.” However, last week when the call came, it was a real conflagration, and District 3 CERT, led by Chief David Yeung, responded.
A seven-alarm fire was raging at 283 Grand Street, a six-story building in Chinatown. Flames were shooting 20 to 30 feet in the air and more than 60 Fire Department vehicles were converging on the scene. It was not long before two adjoining buildings — 285 and 289 — were in flames.
District 3 CERT was on site within minutes of the phone tree outreach, coordinating with OEM staff and representatives of other agencies in attending to the needs at hand. More than 250 people had to be evacuated from the three buildings. It took more than ten hours to bring the fire under control.
Our CERT team was immediately directed to the OEM incident commander and requested to assist the American Red Cross of Greater New York volunteers to facilitate in opening Middle School 131 at 100 Hester Street. CERT members guided families and individuals to the school. Among those were the elderly, young children, and one with special needs. Our goal was to create as much order out of the chaos as possible and to maintain the integrity of the families that were in danger of being separated.
At the school, CERT members assisted in translating and interpreting for the Red Cross. Registration was necessary to determine how many rooms were to be allocated to evacuees and to notify NYC Transit about how many buses would be required to transport everyone to the hotel.
Once this was accomplished, MTA provided two accordion buses. By now it was almost 5:30 a.m. The incident commander determined that we had accounted for almost all of the people in the affected buildings, including some who had self-evacuated to the homes of other family members or friends elsewhere in the city.
However, our job was not finished. Throughout the daylight hours the CERT team maintained a presence: attending and reporting periodically with members of other city agencies on the progress in the area; notifying area business people of when they might be allowed to reopen; and facilitating any tasks assigned by OEM staff. We finally “stood down” at 7:30 p.m., Monday evening.
Our team has maintained contact with other agency representatives, including a community update held with evacuees on Monday, April 19, at the Chinatown Consolidated Benevolent Association, where our CERT team has its monthly meetings.
To my esteemed CERT colleagues: YOU were the ones who put those hours of training and practice into action when it really mattered. YOU are the individuals, and we as a team, are the ones who were the local experts because we live in this community. This is our home.
In the weeks ahead, we may again be called upon to further assist our neighbors who have been so deeply impacted by this tragedy, most likely to assist other city agencies in translation and interpretation for housing, education, and work applications for the evacuees. While each agency may have some of those services to offer, these are our neighbors, friends, and family. This is why we are CERT.
EYEWITNESS NEWS VIDEO
(A CERT volunteer can be seen crossing behind the reporter at 02:00 minutes.)