Nearly three years after a fire at her Hudsoncrest co-op killed her ex-husband Juan Melendez, Nitza Bravo finally is ready to return to her 3215 Arlington Ave. home. The former high school educator had a long battle in ensuring her apartment was livable again and that journey was topped off with a house blessing.
“Lord, be close to your servants who are meant to this house and ask for your blessing,” said Father Brian McCarthy of St. Margaret of Cortona and St. Gabriel Church on Nov. 15. “Be their shelter when they are at home, their companion while they are away, and their welcome guests when they return. And at last receive them into the dwelling place you have prepared for them in your father’s house where you live and reign forever and ever.”
The house blessing was attended by the very champions who helped ensure the home was habitable, such as Bravo’s lawyer, Julie Hyman, co-op board members Jeff Erskine and Melissa Metz, superintendent of the co-op Rafael Melendez, Shaban Kastrataj of Highrise Property Management, as well as friends and neighbors.
“I feel more at peace, it’s a closure,” Bravo told The Riverdale Press. “And especially because he blessed the entire apartment. Especially on the spot where the fire happened and obviously I’ll never forget what happened. But settling into this place, I’ll be able to look forward. Today, to me, was a turning point. Because that three- year anniversary of when it happened is coming in January.”
That fateful day on Jan. 13, 2021 is one Bravo or those who witnessed the searing flames that took the life of Bravo’s 84-year-old ex-husband will never forget. The day was made all the more crushing for Bravo because by coincidence she had just received her divorce papers. She made the choice to leave and go to an upstairs rental in the same co-op due to Melendez picking up the habit of smoking, a choice she credits with saving her life.
Investigators believed Melendez was smoking in bed near an oxygen tank just before the fire, The Press previously reported. The co-op super, Rafael Melendez, recanted that night, explaining that a tenant notified him of the smell.
“I came to check it out,” Rafael said. “I called (Bravo) because she was living here, too, and she had the key to the apartment. I opened to see if he was OK and when I opened the door I saw the (flames), and I closed the door because I didn’t want the fire to go out.”
When the fire department arrived they broke through the windows and ultimately discovered Melendez’s body.
The tragedy stung even more for Bravo because initially she was still responsible for paying $766 in maintenance fees each month, despite the fact the apartment was uninhabitable.
In addition, Hudsoncrest Properties, which was the management company then, was apparently originally not going to honor an insurance policy that offered $100,000 for repairs.
That, in addition to having a laundry list of items to repair, made returning to the home seem impossible.
Because the fire happened just at the beginning of the Covid 19 pandemic, it slowed getting things done. Hyman, learned how to solve a lot of the issues through dealing with the aftermath of a flooding at her parents’ home. Eventually the $100,000 was given, and with it came stripped and re-done walls, brand new wood floors, a kitchen and bathroom. Those accomplishments and working within a budget were not solely because of Hyman though.
“It was a group effort,” Hyman told The Press. “Jeff (Erskine) is on the board, he’s also a sponsor. And we had a problem because originally there was a $30,000 differential between what a private contractor was willing to do and what the insurance was willing to pay.
“There was also a hold back of depreciation from the insurance money that wouldn’t be paid (to the buildings insurance carrier) until all the pictures were submitted and approved that it’s done, so no contractor would have been willing to wait to get paid until after the insurance was ready to pay out. Jeff interviewed multiple contractors and then found the right one.”
It was important to Hyman and Erskine that they got a contractor who could accommodate Bravo in aging in peace. Some of those accommodations for Bravo were handlebars in the bathroom and a hand-held shower piece.
“We went over all the details of what were my client’s wishes for customizing the space because of her disability and also just personal preferences to figure out what we could do on the budget we had,” Hyman said. “And we figured it out and this is the outcome and it’s amazing.”
When the fire happened Bravo had to itemize every item destroyed in the fire and put a number to it to get it reinstated by insurance provider Allstate. However, to be reimbursed for those purchases, she would have had to buy them within 120 days of the fire, which was not possible for Bravo given the circumstances surrounding the construction.
On the day of the blessing a representative from Allstate informed Hyman and Bravo they got approval to increase the timeline to recover the depreciation to early next year. Now it’s only a matter of picking out furniture and other things to make her home feel home.
Bravo will officially be moving into the apartment at the end of January, alongside her sister. It’ll be an early birthday present for her, she said, which is fitting because she says it almost feels like she’s being born again.
“I feel like the place is so refreshed, inside and out,” Bravo said. “It feels like it’s so refreshed. I can go forward now. I think I was spinning my wheels for the last three years and I feel like now I can move forward with my life.”