It’s the worst nightmare scenario for anyone living in a building.
When their building went up in flames, the residents of an Upper West Side brownstone lost everything in one afternoon, except-thanks to two quick-thinking workers-their lives.
On July 13, doorman Endri Brahimaj, 19, had just finished watering the flowers at the Level Club condo and was chatting with off-duty porter Izet Neljkovic, 44, when they saw smoke billowing from the roof of a brownstone across West 73rd Street.
They ran inside their building to tell fellow worker Leonard Thaqi to call 911, then they raced across the street to buzz apartments so they could get inside the burning building. “We knew those people,” Brahimaj said, describing their unhesitating courageous act. “These are people we see every day.”
It was shortly after noon inside the brownstone, at 254 W. 73rd St. One resident was taking a nap; another was drinking coffee and listening to music. Fortunately they and the other at-home residents heard the incessant banging and yelling of Neljkovic and Brahimaj-then quickly and safely evacuated the building before fire trucks arrived.
“Oh, man, you saved my life, because I was sleeping,” said the napping woman, who awoke to Neljkovic’s insistent banging and voice. But Neljkovic, who has worked as a porter at the Level Club for 11 years, deflected the praise. “I can not say, ‘I do this…’” he said. “Others were scared. But, coming back out, I was sacred, too.”
“It was scary,” echoed Brahimaj, a high school senior who plays volleyball and basketball, when describing the scene inside the building. “We heard the explosion, the windows would pop. We didn’t
know if there’s enough time. We looked outside and glass was raining down. We didn’t want debris falling on people.”
“Lives were saved!” recalled Elinor Silverman, who lives at Level Club.
She saw the smoke from her top-floor apartment and went downstairs after the fire trucks came. “It was the most incredible fire,” she said. “Roaring, orange, red flames. The whole building was engulfed. There were firemen on the roof, trying to douse the fire that way.” She said her building was soon buzzing with the news of what the doormen did. “Nelkovic is kind of shy,” she said. “I think he was thrilled, but also embarrassed.”
The fire started in a top-floor unit and quickly spread to the roof. According to a news report at the time, top-floor resident Carl Troop had complained of a wiring problem. The one casualty in the fire was Troop’s cat, although eight firefighters and one resident were treated for minor burns at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital.
Because of the speed of the fire, residents had no time to rescue belongings or valuables, and at least one was in pajamas, according to Brahimaj. They found sanctuary in the lobby of the Level Club, where they were given water and access to phones until the Red Cross came several hours later. “They were shaking, very scared,” said doorman Thaqi. “They only had time to bring backpacks, the clothes they were wearing.”
After their heroic act, the men were given one day off work with pay and honored at City Hall. Their story was written up in the New York Post, Daily News and a few foreign-language newspapers in the city.
Neljkovic moved to New York from Yugoslavia in 1995 in search of better economic prospects for his family. He lives in Astoria, Queens. He has a 17-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter. Brahimaj’s family comes from Tirana, Albania. He grew up in Ridgewood, Queens, and now lives in Glenville. He hopes to go to college; meanwhile, he enjoys his part-time work at the Level Club where he said the residents are “nice people, a lot of fun.”
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