|Scene from the Astor Fire of May 13, 1978, before the building collapsed. My uncle and aunt’s penthouse in the neighboring La Galia Building is visible in the upper left hand corner.
The group included the only two families living in the La Galia Commercial Building: my uncle and aunt, Enrique and Mercedes “Meche” Huesca, their son Eduardo, their houseguest – my mother, Joan Huesca – and their neighbors, the Estradas, a couple with two teenage children and a visiting friend.
Eduardo had run downstairs with a fire extinguisher to check on the source of the smoke they had seen billowing up through the interior courtyard in what was called the “cube.” Meanwhile, Enrique turned off the gas, and Meche called the fire department. At the time, no one in the house was aware of the massive extent of the blaze. It is unknown whether they had heard the earlier explosions on the lower level of the Astor Department Store just next door.
Eduardo returned moments later, forced back upstairs by thick smoke on the fourth floor. The only thing that was clear to the two families was that their chances of escaping to safety were narrowing quickly.
Many people talk about but never have to take seriously the question of what to take with them when their house is on fire. There must have been a momentary pause as the Huescas and Estradas considered that question. Their notions of domestic safety were shattered: all exits were blocked and the air was clouding with smoke. There were no guarantees that they get out alive.No one panicked, perhaps because it was so surreal. My mother later told us that my uncle Enrique reminded everyone that they had nothing to fear because they were in God’s hands. The thought gave them tremendous hope.
My cousin, Enrique Huesca, Jr., who had left a couple of hours earlier, recalls hearing that his mother, Meche, quickly went into action quickly, gathering up documents. “She got all of our important papers: passports, our sacramental and professional certificates, diplomas, checkbooks, financial information – everything that we would need – and she put all of it into her jewelry bag to take with her.” (1)
Meche and my mother ran for their purses, and the group proceeded together through the living room exit to the street-side rooftop terrace to await help. As she left the room, my mother grabbed her pack of Salem cigarettes and took two out, lighting one for Meche and the other for herself. The fire department arrived soon after Meche’s call, undoubtedly one of several they had received about the fire that night. The Huescas and the Estradas shouted wildly from the building as they watched the trucks in the street. By now they would have become aware of the inferno raging next door at Astor.
The street was a cacophony of emergency vehicles, horns, wailing sirens, and clanging equipment against the explosive sounds of the inferno below. The group’s exuberance turned to shock as they realized no one seemed to know they were on the roof. They yelled even louder to get the firefighters’ attention.
Even in unison, their cries were no match for the deafening din around them. No one could hear them.
Copyright © 2013 Linda Huesca Tully