Lila, Yaya and Nadja Johnson. Photo by Carol Tannenhauser.

By Carol Tannenhauser

It was Friday February 24, just before 6 p.m. Nadja Johnson, 45, and her daughters, Lila, 6, and Yasmin (Yaya), 4, were in their second-floor rental apartment – directly above Jacob’s Pickles – on Amsterdam Avenue, between 84th and 85th streets. “We were watching Pocahontas and Mommy was making dinner,” Lila said. “Then, Daddy called Mommy that there was a fire in the building.”

“He had just picked up the laundry on the next block,” Nadja said. “He told me to take the girls and leave. I said, ‘Lila, Yaya, there’s a fire in the building. We have to go right now!’ They said, ‘No, Mommy. We’re watching!’ Then, Yaya said, ‘Take the iPad, Lila! Take the iPad!” I took the backpack where I keep our documents: passports, birth certificates, everything.” “Then, we went outside and saw all the fire trucks coming,” Lila said.

fire jacobs
Photo by Alanna Campbell.

Thirty-nine units brought 170 firefighters, who battled the blaze for three hours before containing it. The Johnsons stood in front of the building, watching. The fire was sparked by an electrical cord, according to FDNY; seven people were injured.

Photo by Cody Pope.

“The Red Cross came,” Nadja said. “They gave us a $500 card to help with food and things we needed right away. The city offered us a shelter in the Bronx. We work here; the girls study here; to come from a shelter in the Bronx would create more problems. They said, ‘If you say no, that’s it. We cannot help you anymore.’”

That’s when the community stepped in. The parents of their daughters’ classmates at the Metropolitan Montessori School (MMS), on 85th Street, between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, said, “Don’t go to a shelter. You have us.” For the next three weeks, the Johnsons stayed with one family after another. “That’s how we managed,” Nadia said. “They also organized a gofundme for us. I don’t know how it works. I think I’m still in shock.

“The first week after the fire, I was definitely in shock,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh, I’m strong,’ but, then, when I went to the apartment, I saw my life, my memories, washed away. The firemen had to break the walls and pull everything down. There was water damage and mold. The girls lost almost all their books. We lost our computer.”

johnson apartment before
The apartment before the fire.

johnson apartment2
And after.

“Afterwards, I was sitting in front of the apartment building on this black plastic bag, crying. I couldn’t stop crying. I loved my home. It was small, so I wanted it to be nice and pretty and clean. Then, when it was the opposite and I had no home, it was just too much.”

nadja johnsonNow, she realizes all is not lost, although the Johnsons have no renter’s insurance, she works only part-time as a medical interpreter (she’s Brazilian and speaks Portuguese), and her husband, Byron, is currently transitioning between jobs. “Our financial situation is very delicate right now,” she said. “I love New York, I really do. But, sometimes, the city can be very cruel when you’re not rich.”

Not this time.

“A couple from the girls’ school has a huge house and, on the street level, they have a one-bedroom apartment that no one was using and they just offered it to us,” Nadja said. “We arrived three days ago. We can have it through half of June. It’s perfect for now. And they refuse to let us pay!”

They also prefer to remain anonymous.

“We still have some hope in this time that is so crazy now,” Nadja said. “That hope is in the kindness of people.”

“And clean laundry!” she laughed. “The good thing is, my husband went to pick up the laundry. It was two bags. That really helped. At least we had our basic clothes. We were lucky.”

E’s Bar, which is still closed, has also set up a Gofundme fundraiser for the victims and will donate the first night’s register to victims once it reopens. And Jacob’s Pickles plans to hold a fundraiser on April 26 at Maison Pickle, where it continues to serve food from the Jacob’s menu. We will have more on those fundraisers as they approach. Let us know if you have information on other victims.

NEWS | 22 comments | permalink
    1. Ken J. says:

      It’s wonderful that the neighbors stepped in to help.

    2. Harvey Segaliwitz says:

      This tragic situation highlights the importance of homeowner’s and renter’s insurance. For anyone who doesn’t have it, don’t procrastinate any longer!

    3. ron shapley says:

      That brotherhood of man !!! <3

    4. Lucette says:

      Pretty wonderful That is what community is all about

    5. Kathleen says:

      During this time when we see and hear about so much hatred, and lack of concern for those who have so little and are so vulnerable, it is heartwarming to hear of so much kindness. It is the kindness and compassion we have for each other that will bring us through these dark times and truly make America great again.

    6. lynn says:

      So how does this work? Was the family allowed to go back into their apt and retrieve their belongings? Will they need to find a new apt or can they move back in at some point?

      • Nathan says:

        They’d probably need to wait for all the fire damage to be fixed before moving back in. But it will probably take long enough that they’ll need to find a new place.

        Cynical take: Assuming they were in a rent-stabilized apartment, the landlord may just opt not to fix the apartments so that he won’t be obligated to re-rent them to his existing tenants. Somebody with more knowledge can correct me, but I believe they have the right to return for two years, so don’t be surprised to see this building simply boarded up for that long.

        • B.B. says:

          No, that is not how things work.

          When RS apartment is damaged (fire, flood, etc…) the lease still continues as legally binding agreement, however rent can (and is often) reduced to a nominal sum until the apartment is renovated and can be reoccupied by tenant.

          Being as all this may, yes, there are things a LL can (and have) done in attempts to get affected tenant or tenants not to return. They can drag out repairs in hopes the tenant of record will simply move on and or otherwise give up their rights.

          If a building is totally destroyed (such as those terrible gas related blasts of recent memory), and or damaged to the extent declared uninhabitable by NYC and thus must be torn down, that is another matter.

          Even if a LL wants to do the right thing after a fire or whatever else causes major destruction to an apartment or entire building, given the nature of doing any sort of construction in New York it can take months or years before an apartment or entire building is ready to be occupied again. The process of insurance payments and so forth can also tie things up for a long time. In the end some tenants may just move on with their lives.

          • lynn says:

            Thanks for the replies Nathan and BB. I really appreciate the information (and direct links)!

          • UWSSurfer says:

            OFF TOPIC of the fire above Jacob’s Pickles…
            but I thought you might
            know, why on earth has it taken more than 5 years after Hurricane Sandy for the pier by 79th Boat Basin to be rebuilt?

            How long
            does it take to build one wooden short pier?

            In the past few weeks, a family was about to move into their rebuilt home damaged by Sandy and it caught on fire.

            The statistics knocked me out. It was something like only 46% of homes damaged by Sandy had been rebuilt so far.

            • B.B. says:

              Know nothing more about the 79th Street BB than anyone else. *LOL*

              The thing was in deep state of disrepair and nearly collapsing before super storm Sandy, and that event finished off what Mother Nature and neglect started.

              As with any federal and or NYC construction scheme things never go as planned or originally stated.

              Apparently there were several issues that caused the delay:

              To NYC’s credit they are going with more metal and concrete instead of wood. This in theory (and hopefully) will make the BB strong enough to endure future storms and more resistant to the “critters” in water that eat/bore through wood.

              For the record there are still plenty of structures and other things damaged by Sandy that haven’t been totally repaired. People living in affected parts of Staten Island, Queens and Brooklyn still are waiting on the “Build It Back” program to finish (or even start) their homes. The NYCHA housing projects in affected areas are also still a work in progress.

          • Nathan says:

            Thanks for the links.

            There was a fire in a townhouse on West End Ave between 82nd and 83rd a couple years ago. The vacate notice has been on the building ever since. I did just notice, however, that the building is finally on the market and they’re selling it as an opportunity to recombine the house into a single-family. Perhaps the landlord there just waited his tenants out?

    7. Heidi Boyson says:

      Beautiful story! Thanks for sharing!

    8. Nancy says:

      If we have some clothing in good condition, is there somewhere we can drop them off? I understand the need for anonymity, but I would like to provide some help for the family.

    9. Catherine says:

      New Yorkers at their best! I live on W85th between WEA/RSD across from Metropolitan Montessori School and we are frequent patrons at Jacob’s Pickles & their new spot. We helped a family once who needed a place to stay while their new home got ready. It is a great feeling for everyone. Good Karma for everyone who is helping 🙂

    10. Elizabeth M. says:

      Wonderful story! So glad the family is being embraced by their neighbors. There are good people out there. Makes me want to be one of them.

    11. UWSSurfer says:

      My father’s family lost their family home to a fire when he was a child that destroyed everything but a few keepsakes.

      I now have those few mementos.

      Bless this family and our UWS crabapples who like complain. When the chips are down our Upper Westsiders really go to bat.

      To the family, nothing you lost in the fire can compare to your beautiful family. You are safe, alive and that is most important.

    12. Nadja johnson says:

      Thank you everyone for all your kindness, solidarity and generosity

    13. Nancyf says:

      An amazing family. Am proud to help be a part of their community and donate to make things a little easier.

    14. Gabriela Saraiva de Mello says:

      Dear Nadja, you and your family are blessed, you know that! New life is about to start and special thanks to such good people that are always on our way helping out and reminding us that hope and compassion do exist. Faith does not fail, “que a fé não costuma falhar”.