Fire Rallies Community Around Oh Family

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By Ishita Singh

Kyung Dong Oh stands in front of a charred door with his hands in his pockets. Every now and then he walks from one side of the building to the other. But mostly he looks at the boarded-up windows and the soot-covered entrance and the bright blue tarp covering most of the sunny yellow cement structure.

Kyung Dong Oh paces in front of his building, which was badly damaged in a fire last week. Photo: Singh/Brooklyn Ink
Kyung Dong Oh paces in front of his building, which was badly damaged in a fire last week. Photo: Singh/Brooklyn Ink

This had been home for Oh, and his wife Kyung Ja, but now it is just remains. A fire destroyed the Cobble Hill building last Tuesday morning, while the Ohs were on a morning walk. Everything that the Ohs had amassed in 20 years of living at 178 Smith St. burned to ashes in just 20 minutes, according to Antonio Gonzalez, who saw the blaze unfold.

“It was business as usual but then I saw smoke so I went outside and saw the store on fire,” Gonzalez, who owns Tony’s Hardware and Plumbing Supplies across the street from the Ohs’ building, said. He said that the fire began downstairs, in a shoe repair shop, and then flames shot up and burned everything, including the scaffolding next door.

Gonzalez has been in the neighborhood for 53 years, and has owned Tony’s for 14 years. He said he knows the Ohs well. Everyone in the neighborhood does. Carmen Rivera, who works at the Felmingo Corp. deli a half block down from the site said that she was sad to hear about the fire. “They’re nice people,” Rivera said. “Been in the neighborhood a long time.”

The Ohs, who are known in the neighborhood as Joseph and Anna, owned a dry cleaning business in the area for many years. They decorated the walls of their shop with postcards from patrons on vacation and baby pictures of frequent customers, but rent hikes in Cobble Hill forced Trusting Cleaners to close last year.

“They were a beloved couple in the area, with the dry cleaners. They were well, well known in the community,” Reverend Robert Powers, administrator of St. Paul & St. Agnes Parish, said.

Though they no longer owned the store, the Ohs remained in their apartment above the shoe repair shop. They had gone out for a walk the morning of the fire, and returned to find their building ablaze. The building itself was insured, but all of the couple’s furniture and belongings are gone.

“We’ve lost everything,” Kyung Dong Oh said.

Oh and his wife are staying with their daughter Theresa, but it is a one-bedroom apartment so Oh wants to find a small place of his own to stay in.

“We have all these friends asking, ‘stay here, stay here,’ but we don’t know how long it will be,” Oh said. “It’s not a quick turnaround—it might be 1, 2, 3 years—but we’re looking to get back home.”

His neighbors are trying to help. Powers and members of his parish created a fund to help ease the many costs the Ohs face in the coming weeks and months. Because of the couple’s relationship with the neighborhood, “we thought it was natural to have a fund for them to draw on,” Powers said. Linda Blyer, a longtime neighbor who has been deeply involved in helping the Ohs after the fire, estimated that in the week since the fire, the parish has already collected $1,000. Blyer said that the church is also hoping to hold a potluck fundraising event in January to collect donations.

“They’re from another country so they don’t have a lot of relatives here, just their children.” Blyer said. “So they’ve become our family and we’ll try to do anything we can to help them.”

Oh has been grateful for all the help, he said. “There’s so many people asking, ‘what do you need?’ They want to help us put our life back in order.”

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