What we know and don't know about the blaze that destroyed Rockaway Avenue businesses


In the early-morning hours of Jan. 27, a fire, which originated at the Jadwiga’s Polish American Deli on West Lincoln Avenue, ravaged a row of neighboring businesses on Rockaway Avenue.

After more than five hours, the skeleton of the building remained, but the trio of storefronts — Hearing Center of Long Island, Valley Stream Pharmacy, and Orange Skye Day Spa — were gutted beyond recognition.

Mayor Edwin Fare described it as a “total loss.” In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, police taped off the ruined storefronts, most of them stripped of their front windows and doors, with charred rubble and shattered glass spilled onto the sidewalk.

The sidewalk debris has since been swept clean and the vacant storefronts have been boarded up — standing now as a sad reminder of the loss to business owners and the community, and a blow to a main business district still struggling to restore its commercial presence.

“I found out about what happened when I arrived at the office that morning,” said Dr. Larry Cardano, owner of the Hearing Center of Long Island. “We had made a home there for myself and my patients for over 20 years, so it was totally unexpected.

“My first thought was how we’re going take care of our patients.” 

Although roughly 20 fire departments across the South Shore and 150 firefighters raced to the scene, fire officials were unable to keep the blaze from completely engulfing the commercial building from the inside.

Fare said he was saddened by the loss, but stressed that no lives were lost: “Property can be replaced, people cannot.”

Apart from three firefighters, no one was harmed. The cause of the fire, after more than two weeks, remains “indeterminant” according to the Nassau County fire marshal’s office.


Why the fire was so destructive

Fire officials said that a vulnerability in the building’s design caused the fire to spread unusually quickly.

It began at the rear of the stores. By the time firefighters entered the building, the fire had already spread to a common loft space between the ceiling and the roof, spanning the tops of all four stores, which firefighters described as a cockloft.

Cockloft fires are notoriously difficult and dangerous to put out, according to fire experts. For one thing, cocklofts are combustible empty spaces designed to trap and disperse heat through vents. When on fire, they are prone to smoke explosions, commonly known as backdrafts, as oxygen meets extreme heat within their confined space.

That’s just the dangerous part.

“We had heavy tin ceilings we had to pull down to access the cockloft,” said Village Fire Chief Patrick Scanlon, according to reports. “Tin ceilings are very labor intensive and very hard to pull down so we needed long hooks and a lot of firefighters to help put it out.”

“In this case with these stores, you had the regular drop ceiling with white tiles. That was approximately eight to 10 feet from the floor and then a gap to the tin ceilings, which was holding the fire back in the cockloft,” said Village Fire Department media liaison Brian Grogan. “When these ceilings come down, there’s a bunch of wiring that comes down with it, which can be an obstacle, tangle up or get stuck in our boots, and those have to be clipped.”

As firefighters toiled to reach the cockloft, the odds of sparing the rest of the building from the fast-moving flames evaporated with each passing moment. In the end, the building’s fire safety deficiencies were no match for the blaze. The interior had been laid to waste.


Old businesses, an older building, brought down

Not all buildings are as susceptible to fire destruction as large as the one seen on Rockaway Avenue. Experts note that depending on fire code requirements and building factors, newer commercial buildings whose stores share a cockloft space often have fire barriers or gaps between them to lessen the damage in the event of a fire.

The fire-ravaged building on Rockaway Avenue was built in 1937, noted Mayor Ed Fare, when many of the currently existing “zoning and building codes, and many safety and fire regulations” weren’t in place.

Officials from the Nassau County Fire Marshal confirmed Fare’s assessment, referring to the building as a “pre-existing, non-conforming” structure.

It did not have firewalls or any sort of fire protection in the cockloft space, noted village fire officials, adding that Rockaway Avenue is home to several of these kinds of older commercial buildings. Some house rows of stores or cluster them together; several of which are “tricky” to navigate and handle should they ever become a battleground for firefighters. 

Fare assured that current safety standards will be met if the commercial space is rebuilt.

“Current codes must be followed for all reconstruction,” assured Fare. “This responsibility will fall to the owners and their design, architectural, and engineering professionals to comply with all State, County, and Village codes.”

At least for his business, Cardano has found hope in the ashes of the disaster. He’s moved his practice right around the corner to 20 West Lincoln Avenue.

“In the long term, the new location has more space and allowed us to upgrade our equipment, setting up our office based on the newest methods of treatment,” said Cardano, who started seeing patients in early February. “So there is a silver lining in this dark cloud.

“I was surprised at the outpouring of support, calling and texting me to show their support and ask how they can help. I’m glad we’re able to get into our new location so quickly, and I extend my condolences to the other business owners.”

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