Firefighters were still on the scene Wednesday, and investigators said much of the damage could have been avoided.
The flames broke out at around 1 p.m. Tuesday on the sixth floor of the 133-unit building at 89th Street and 34th Avenue. Nearly two dozen people were injured, and the building was gutted.
Martin Barrera said she grew up there with his mother.
"Twenty-three years in an apartment, you settle. There's something in there that belongs to you, and it's called your home," he told CBS2. "For them, this is all they had. It's not some, or, you know, I can go move somewhere. It's all they had."
"We're all reeling from this. Kids don't have clothes, we're completely empty, we have nothing," said Andrew Sokolof Diaz, founder of the Tenant's Association.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but officials said it began inside a sixth-floor apartment. Officials said there was a 10-minute delay in calling 911 after residents smelled smoke.
"People smell smoke, they notify someone else other than us, 'I think I smell smoke.' You smell smoke, call the fire department," FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.
Investigators also believe the resident left the door open as they ran to safety, allowing the flames to spread into the hallway and then overhead into the cockloft.
"Please, if you have a fire in your home, in your apartment and you have to leave, close that door and keep that fire contained. Our first units were met in the hall with heavy fire and were unable to push their lines as much as they tried and three members were burned trying," Nigro said.
About 240 residents were displaced -- the majority of them low-income, working class, immigrant workers.
Community advocates tried helping residents return to the building Wednesday to search for their documents. Others worked to start food drives and fundraisers.
"It's hard to contextualize, because when you say you lost everything, it's literately that. You lost clothes, you lost food, you lost documentation," said community organizer Daniel Puerto.
The Red Cross is providing temporary assistance, putting Sokolf Diaz and his family in a hotel room until Sunday. After that, he, his wife, and infant child will have nowhere to go.
"We're really afraid that we're going to be forgotten in the mix, and in the middle of a pandemic even worse. We really need support," he said.
The fire department has not had a chance to go inside the building to investigate, but officials do not believe the blaze was suspicious.
Meanwhile, community advocates have started a GoFundMe page to help the displaced residents.
CBS2's Christina Fan and John Dias contributed to this report.
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