After Fire, Island Neighbors Shine

May 15, 2017

Emile Topilin wanted a midnight snack on Saturday, April 29, so he walked from his bedroom to the nicely appointed kitchen of his newly purchased Island House apartment. It was late, so he went for something light, a bowl of soup. He put the soup in the microwave hanging over the stove, turned it on, and walked away. He says, “I barely reached my bed when I heard crackling noises from behind me.”

 

He ran back to the kitchen. “Literally, in that one minute, I saw the microwave was already ablaze, and the fire had spread to my coffee machine [to the right of the stove on the counter top]. And the cabinet next to the microwave was aflame.”

 

 

He remembers standing there for a few seconds watching in disbelief before starting to panic. “I didn’t even think of grabbing my keys, and my keys were not that far away. I grabbed my phone and rushed out of my apartment, locking myself out in the process,” explains Topilin – an oversight that he says caused the firefighters to waste another three or so minutes to knock the door down when they arrived. “For the first few seconds, when I was running to the door station, I couldn’t even remember the password to my phone to unlock it to call 911. Then I realized the neighbors might be sleeping. So I ran back and rang [their] bells, knocked on their doors, realizing every second is precious.” Topilin says ultimately he made it back to the doorstation, and five to seven fire engines arrived ten minutes later.

 

Topilin recalls it took the fire department 15 minutes to douse the flames. They had to knock his front door down, and break a few windows to release the heat and smoke. In the process, his whole kitchen was destroyed. He also lost some furniture and clothing. His apartment is currently not habitable and is covered in soot, smoke, and three inches of floating water. As a result, the floors are ruined. 

 

Community

 

Topilin moved to the Island in January. At the time of the fire, some of his things were still in boxes. 

 

 

He says he didn’t feel like he could call anyone at that hour and didn’t know anyone on the Island or in his building. He had spent the last decade living in a rental in Newark, New Jersey, saving money to one day buy an apartment. His work and social life were all Manhattan-based.

 

That night changed everything. He says two women stepped forward in the lobby. Island House neighbor Marianne Haugaard was one of them; the two had never met, but she immediately offered Topilin her spare bedroom. 

The next day, more people came forward to offer help. Topilin’s phone had died and an Island House resident gave him a phone and a charger. Someone else offered to drop off his dry cleaning and do his laundry. Another resident asked him for his pants size and shirt collar size, and offered to get him some clothes. Two residents spearheaded a fundraising campaign on GoFundMe (www.gofundme.com/support-emil). Marina Komarecki and Donna Chenkin organized a fundraiser on his behalf on May 4. 

 

Management’s Response

 

Meanwhile, Topilin says he hasn’t received much help from the building’s management company, Mark Greenberg Real Estate Co. LLC. “They have been extremely tight-lipped; they have refused to answer any of my questions – and they are quite reasonable questions.” 

 

Topilin says he just wants to know whether the management company can assist him. He inquired about temporary emergency housing. He says there are available apartments that aren’t under contract yet. He wants a copy of the building insurance, and the insurance adjustor’s report (the insurance adjustor came to examine the damages May 3). Neither are forthcoming. 

 

Topilin says, “What am I paying my maintenance for if I can’t get the most basic information - the copy of the insurance, the building insurance policy? Over a week has passed and I still haven’t received anything!” 

 

The insurance adjustor did inform him that the apartment will require a complete gut, that he would have to remove his surviving personal belongings, and that he cannot move back in for two to three months. Management has given Topilin the use of storage and they do say they’ve submitted a claim to their insurer for the purpose of paying Topilin’s maintenance for a reasonable period of time while the apartment is being restored. 

 

“The whole experience has been so callous and ugly that I’m really stunned and shocked at the stone-heartedness,” Topilin says, noting that management did not communicate with the tenants until May 4 in the form of a letter sent to all residents. 

 

“The management even refused the request to book our own community room for the fundraiser campaign for me there, and we were forced to use the Senior Center instead. They took down the “Support Emile” posters because they thought my apartment was not entirely destroyed, despite their own insurance adjuster’s statement to me that the apartment would need to be completely gutted. I’m still in disbelief and feel disgusted by these petty attempts of the management to throw sticks in the wheels of any initiatives to help by the Island House community.”

 

Topilin says management sent him a personal letter on May 4 as well. In sum, he says, the letter requested he stop attacking the management company. Topilin said, “I am like, pray tell me, pray specify – attacks? Do you mean physical, verbal? It’s pretty much a defamation claim. Why would I do that? I am a lawyer myself.” 

 

In response, property manager Richelle Neufville told The WIRE, “The insurance company for the co-op is continuing to investigate.”

 

Island House Board

 

Thus far, Topilin has received no word at all from the Island House tenant board. He says he asked management to convene an emergency board meeting, but that management, through property manager Richelle Neufville, “categorically refused to tell me if and when an emergency board meeting would take place. She wouldn’t even give me the dates of the regular board meetings. And they’re not posted anywhere.” 

 

He said, “Basically no tenant can attend any board meeting. The board meets secretly. That’s for the rest of us to swallow. I thought that, as someone who bought a market-rate apartment, I am a shareholder, I would have some clout.” 

 

The Cause of the Fire

 

According to Topilin, the New York City Fire Marshall told him at the conclusion of his inspection that the fire was caused by faulty in-wall wiring. He is waiting for the official report. Meanwhile, management’s letter characterizes that as rumors, and says, “The collective opinion is that the fire was an accident.” 

 

“They don’t mention what kind of accident they think it was,” complains Topilin. “But they try to shift the blame on me. They keep harping on the coffee machine: what brand was it, what model was it, how long ago did I purchase it, was it plugged in. What relevance does any of this have? I believe it was plugged in. The fridge is always plugged in. The stove is always plugged in. The microwave is always plugged in. We don’t unplug those things. It was plugged in, but I wasn’t drinking coffee at night before I go to bed. Like most people, I drink it in the morning. And if it was something with my coffee machine, that is a manufacturer’s liability. Even the insurance adjuster refused to answer reasonable questions I asked him. He said ‘I work for them, I am the building’s insurance guy, not yours.’ So, I have to request the report from the building, which means I’m probably not going to get it until I hire an attorney or something.”

 

Fire Safety

 

According to the May 4 letter to all residents, the building management has no legal requirement for fire extinguishers in residential apartment buildings, nor sprinkler systems in hallways or apartments. The letter also characterizes Island House a “fireproof” building, as evidenced by the fact that the fire didn’t spread. 

 

Topilin concedes that the fire didn’t spread, but he says that the soot and toxins did impact the neighbors. He also claims that residents have been requesting management to put fire extinguishers in the hallways for years. He says, “The smoke detector didn’t go off in my apartment. If this thing occurred half an hour later, I would have been roasted alive.”

 

“In addition,” Topilin says, “there are no fire extinguishers anywhere on the floors and no water sprinklers in the corridors or the apartment itself. If there were a fire extinguisher on our floor, I would have used to douse the flames before the firefighters’ arrival.” 

 

Insurance

 

Topilin is the first to admit, “I stupidly didn’t have homeowner’s insurance.” He opines though that the building’s insurance should cover the fixtures and appliances. He says, “I bought them with the walls, floors, and ceiling! I didn’t bring them with me.” 

 

The May 4 letter from the building states that, “the building policy does not cover losses to the apartment itself, including improvements and betterments, which are the responsibility of the shareholder.”

 

Topilin counters, “I wouldn’t be able to move them with me on resale, they would still stay there.” He says everything was top of the line, and it was all purchased wholesale by the sponsor. 

 

“You’d think the co-op itself would be interested in having the appliances and fixtures insured. A fire or flood could happen in an empty apartment.” But that again, “They are completely tight-lipped and haven’t given me a copy of the insurance, I don’t know how to obtain it in order to find out what it covers and what it doesn’t.”

 

He paid $715,000 plus a transfer tax of $14,000 for the west-facing, two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in 575 Main Street, anticipating his brother would move here from Lithuania and stay indefinitely. 

 

Silver Linings

 

“A saying in my culture is, ‘There’s no bad that doesn’t turn good at the end,’” Topilin says. “I never could have expected that people were so compassionate here.

 

This never would have happened in my Newark apartment building, or in Manhattan. Come on!”

 

He says he didn’t anticipate anything, definitely not this outpouring. 

 

He estimates that he’s met close to 50 of his neighbors in the past week, saying, “I must admit that this forced me to reassess my networking skills. I had zero. I was leading a hermit life on Roosevelt Island. My social life was on the other side of the river, in Manhattan. I looked to that place to hang out and meet people, not suspecting all of the amazing personalities who live here – truly altruistic people.”

 

Of the Island House tenant response, Haugaard, who refers to Topilin as “my refugee,” says, “It’s normal, you don’t leave people on the street. A lot of neighbors I never met before are ringing on the doorbell [to offer to help]. There is [a] lot of solidarity in this building.”

 

Topilin concedes, “I guess I have made the right choice to move to Roosevelt Island after all, despite this devastating loss.”

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