Khurram Ahmed awoke to a burning sensation on his forehead. The Levittown resident had been sleeping with his face pressed to the wall of his apartment at Newbridge Gardens. On the other side, flames leapt at his roommate Michele Sanchez, 68, who awoke to the screech of her fire alarm on Feb. 11.
“I thought I could put the fire out,” she said. “But the flames were just so high.” In those moments, Sanchez added, she wondered whether she could grab her comforter, jump out the window and use it to land on her hedges.
Ahmed, still half-asleep, rushed into the next room and grabbed Sanchez, who had begun to suffer an asthma attack, pulling her out of her room and into the hall.
As they ran, Ahmed slammed his fists against other doors, screaming to warn his neighbors.
At 11:36 p.m., the East Meadow Fire Department received a call alerting them to the fire, and within two minutes, all four East Meadow fire chiefs were on the road. When they arrived, Sanchez was being given oxygen and, soon after, she was taken to a hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation. Several of the apartments had sustained smoke, heat and water damage — leaving 20 residents homeless.
Elizabeth Heffernan, 38, of East Meadow, heard the fire trucks’ sirens and, the next morning, read about what had happened. She immediately took to Facebook, announcing that she would be collecting donations for the displaced families. “This is something I felt I had to do,” she said. “You have to help people who need help.”
Her boyfriend, John Stuglin, 31, who joined in her efforts, said, “Everything she does, I do,” adding that he grew up in poverty and moved from shelter to shelter with his family. “Once we got a foot up, we started helping the homeless and inviting them into our church,” he said.
Heffernan called the Long Island Trading Post in Bellmore to assist. “Their space is always open to anyone who needs anything,” he said.
The trading post, also known as Long Island Family and Elder Care, helps to secure no- or low-cost home care services for the elderly, helping clients navigate the complicated application process. Its thrift store also houses a small food pantry and offers clothing to those in need, regardless of their ability to pay.
Laura Newman McKinnon, a co-director of the trading post, said last week that the Bellmore institution has been collecting “anything and everything we can” to help victims of the fire, and they have also opened the doors of the trading post to let families come and pick out anything they might need, free of charge.
“It can be hard to donate shoes and clothes when you don’t know people’s sizes or styles,” McKinnon said. “And our motto here has always been, ‘Everything’s for sale, unless someone needs it.’”
Heffernan has worked with the trading post before, on holiday toy drives for District 75, a Manhattan school for children with autism, Nassau University Medical Center and South Nassau Communities Hospital.
Stew Leonard’s, in East Meadow, donated 10 $50 gift cards to the affected families.
On Feb. 16, Heffernan and Stuglin drove to the Newbridge Gardens condominiums, their white Chevrolet filled to capacity with 20 bags and six bins of clothing, kitchenware, hygiene products and other goods. She said that, shortly after posting on Facebook, residents flooded her with donations.
As Ahmed greeted Heffernan, one of the residents, Charlotte Loake, embraced him. “This man saved us all,” she said, explaining how he had alerted them to the fire.
Loake, a music teacher at Seaford Harbor School, has already moved back into her apartment, where the damage was less severe. Sanchez, however, will have to wait three to six months and is currently staying at a nearby hotel.
After she was told about Heffernan’s actions, Sanchez recalled, she spoke to her son Chris and said, “This is something we have to pass on.” Chris had also garnered support for his mother, creating a gofundme page that had raised $1,545 as of Feb. 16.
Last week, Sanchez walked with the Herald through the wreckage of her home, which smelled of air freshener and soot. She stepped over toppled chairs and smashed CDs into her kitchen. Melted plastic ran down her microwave and television, and most of the furniture was destroyed. Wearing a medical facemask and gloves, Sanchez looked through the remains like a prospector in a mine.
On her way out, she smiled and said that she would be all right. “The generosity and the amount of people helping is really getting me through it.”