As Fire Burns, So Too Does Neighborly Goodwill
by Jeffrey Harmatz
Mar 11, 2009 | 4695 views | 0 0 comments | 689 689 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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A Rego Park family of four that lost their home to a fire two weeks ago has been made the subject of a charity drive by a neighbor and friend.

The Zeltser family barely escaped the blaze that began early in the morning of February 26 that destroyed their apartment. As they spend the next few weeks living with family, friends, and neighbors have begun to solicit donations in order to get the family back on their feet.

At 4:45 a.m., the wiring on an aquarium caught fire in the three-bedroom, 17th floor apartment owned by the Zeltser family. As explained by Diana Zeltser, her 18-year-old daughter was sleeping in her room next to the aquarium when she was awakened by the blaze and smoke. She quickly woke up the rest of the family, which included her mother Diana, her father and her ten-year-old brother.

Despite conditions that Zeltser described as “a thick morning fog, but black,” her young son refused to leave the apartment before finding the family dog, which he did quickly and fled the apartment. The Zeltser family tried in vain to wake their neighbors on the 17th floor, but they were unsuccessful. Fortunately, the fire was contained to their apartment, and no one was injured.

After unsuccessfully trying to grab clothes other than sleepwear they were wearing, more than 40 firefighters attempted to put out the flames.

“They were amazing. Absolutely unbelievable,” said Zeltser.

Though firefighters were quick to respond and prevented any injuries, the family’s home has been devastated. Diana Zeltser, an employee with the Federal Social Security office, owned the apartment along with her recently unemployed husband, and it was not insured. Two of the bedrooms have been completely burned, and water has destroyed most of their furniture. A preliminary estimate has put repair costs around $100,000.

And though the family avoided physical injury, the children are suffering emotionally. Currently staying with Diana’s mother in Forest Hills, her son is afraid to sleep at night, and the daughter, 18, is overwhelmed by the thought that if she had woken up just a few minutes earlier, she could have put out the fire.

“I just want my daughter to stop crying,” said Diana, who is struggling with the fact that her entire family just barely escaped the flames and smoke.

In order to help repair the damage done by the fire, a neighbor, friend, and former co-worker of Diana’s, Ed Gochman, has taken up the family’s cause. After helping Diana apply for federal employee grants but falling far short of the money needed to restore the apartment, Gochman began to solicit mutual friends of the family and nearby community institutions.

“She invited me to her apartment to take some photographs, and I was in shock when I saw what had happened,” said Gochman. “I have two kids myself, and I became so emotional when I saw their apartment. All I could do was ask how I could help.”

Gochman reached out to the nearby Chabad of Rego Park, where Rabbi Eli Bloch asked his minyan to assist the family, even though they are not regular attendees.

Gochman solicited his friends for assistance via email and text messages, and hoping to spread their cause to a wider base, started a website devoted to the cause of raising money for the Zeltser family.

“I’m trying to spread word as much as possible,” said Gochman. “Any donation would be appreciated.”

Gochman is continuing to alert neighbors, friends, and well-wishers to the Zeltser’s plight, and will continue to flyer the neighborhood and reach out to community organizations on their behalf. Though he took up the cause last Friday, a week after the fire, he has been told that money for the family is coming in, although none has been received as of Monday afternoon.

For more information on how to support the Zeltser family, visit, or send checks or money orders to Diana Zeltser care of Boris Volfman, CPA/ESQ, at 91-02 63rd Drive, 2nd Floor, Rego Park, NY, 11374.

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