Following the Golden Rule in Peekskill: Aid After a Condo Building Fire

Written by Ida Eva Zielinska

A condominium building at 3 Woods End Circle in Peekskill, Westchester County, New York, burns to the ground on January 5, 2023, but Tzu Chi’s aid is not far behind. Photo/Courtesy of


An ancient command runs through many, if not all, world religions. What is often referred to as the Golden Rule urges us to treat others how we’d want them to treat us; deters us from treating others how we wouldn’t want them to treat us; and asks us to empathize, wishing for others what we hope for ourselves.

Tzu Chi’s missions activate this spirit of universal neighborliness and empathy. For instance, our volunteers mobilize to provide relief when major disasters strike worldwide. Yet Tzu Chi’s aid doesn’t only arise this way: It can also materialize from a single volunteer feeling a heartfelt call to respond to emerging local needs. Those helped don’t have to number in the hundreds or thousands either: They can be one person in an individual care case or a few households, as in aid following a condominium building fire in New York State in January 2023.

Disaster Next Door

On the night of January 4, Ting Fan, a Tzu Chi volunteer who is also the Director of Tzu Chi USA’s Culture and Communications Department, was on a plane bound for a conference on the West Coast. A long-time New York resident, Ting had just moved to Westchester County seeking the quiet of a small town, which she found in the charming City of Peekskill along the Hudson River, just 50 miles north of the bustling Big Apple. 

Landing safely in Las Vegas, Ting settled in to catch some sleep, unaware that at around that time, at approximately 2:00 AM on January 5 in Peekskill, a fire had ignited in the Hillcrest Park condominium complex that she now called home. Abruptly, several of her new neighbors were in grave peril.

Toni Bizzarro, who uses a nasal cannula and hose to deliver oxygen as part of therapy for a medical condition, had the shock of her life:

I woke up with my nostril on fire. I looked down, and my nightgown was on fire. I ripped it off me and went to try to grab my cat. This whole house was going up in flames, so I had to run outside naked.

“It was the most humiliating thing in my life,” Toni Bizarro recalls about escaping the fire without clothes, yet thankfully, she made it out alive. Photo/Tzu Chi New York Team

Toni’s daughter, Ashley, intervened when her mother was looking for the cat, pushing her out of the apartment. “I didn’t have time to look for clothes; her life was more important.” Ashley then tried to alert her neighbors.

I ran to the other residents and started banging on their doors. Everybody was sleeping as I was banging, screaming, ‘Fire, fire!

Despite losing their home, Carlos Alarcon is grateful for his wife. “We have each other; that’s the important thing.” Photo/Tzu Chi New York Team

The flames, which originated on the top floor of a two-story building at 3 Woods End Circle in the Hillcrest Park condominium community, were ferocious and spread swiftly. Nearly 100 firefighters from all over the region arrived to battle the blaze. Heavy, heavy fire in the fire apartment, and it was already in the cockloft, in that attic area upon arrival,” James Seymour, the Peekskill Fire Chief, told ABC 7 New York.

They said, ‘You need to get out!’ I only had time to grab a sweatshirt. I put it on, grabbed my two little dogs. My wife took her jacket and purse, and that’s all we came out with.

It was a night of terror for the residents of Hillcrest Park’s Building No. 3, with various TV news teams reporting on the drama or later following up on the story. “We were very close to losing our lives, we had to leap off the second deck,” Roger Simon told News 12 Connecticut. “I literally watched it burn. Everything I own, everything I worked so hard for all my life, everything is gone,” Alice Anderson told News 12 Hudson Valley.

All the commotion on that dreadful night was also rousing from their slumber the residents of other apartment buildings and townhouses in the community, including Fernando Bodon, Ting’s life partner. Stepping outside their home about 200 yards from the fire site, he recorded a video and sent it with a text message to Ting, saying there was a lot of smoke, with ambulances and fire trucks all around.

“I didn’t realize it’s that bad because I didn’t see the fire in the video; I only saw smoke,” Ting divulged, explaining that she only realized the gravity of the catastrophe when watching it on television the following morning. “ABC News captured the fire scene and then the debris afterward, as they demolished the entire building right away.”

Firefighters find low water pressure at the site, which forces them to stretch over 1,000 feet of hose across a neighboring highway to bring in more water, but the blaze rages beyond control. Photo/Courtesy of

Despite the firefighters’ valiant efforts, the inferno had reduced Building No. 3 to smoldering rubble and ash, and 25 people, including a 10-year-old child, were suddenly without a home. The only upside to the tragedy was that everyone survived.

That’s the only good thing that came out of this. Because even though we lost everything, we didn’t lose anyone.

Although some, including Ashley’s mother Toni, lost beloved pets. She also suffered burns that required hospitalization. As for Ting, for whom this was the first time a disaster had struck so close to home, yards literally, she was ready to spring into action.

When I watched the ABC News and the News 12 footage, how the building was gone, immediately I was, ‘Oh, how can I help?’ I’ve been to so many disaster zones. I was like, ‘Oh, then where are the people?

Within hours, what was once a building with 16 units, is just a memory for the unfortunate residents. Photo/Courtesy of
Major Rickie Armour gives food to the fire survivors who come to the Salvation Army’s Peekskill Corps Community Center. Photo/Tzu Chi New York Team

Activating Good Intentions Isn’t Always Easy

Ting learned that the American Red Cross had already set up a shelter for the displaced Hillcrest Park residents, and the City of Peekskill was helping them too. The community at large rallied around the survivors, and the Salvation Army of Peekskill was assisting. Major Rickie Armour, a Salvation Army Officer, personally visited the disaster site to determine the extent of needs.

I wanted to see, to get a better perspective of what’s happening. I could tell that the need was real, and the need was great. So far, we’ve been offering them food. We have a food pantry here. We also serve lunch. And we’re also gathering money so we can help them even further.

The path ahead was clear in Ting’s mind – at least in terms of intention. “I just came back from Hurricane Ian [disaster relief]; it’s like a thousand miles away. If I could help Hurricane Ian survivors, feel people far away, their suffering, how could I not do something for my neighbors?” 

The residents of the 16 units that burned down were most definitely displaced, spread across the Red Cross shelter and elsewhere, which Ting knew from her extensive disaster relief experience – “hotels, relatives, friends’ houses, some people will stay in their car. That blew my mind, ‘Oh my God, think about if I were them.’”

Ting knew that according to Tzu Chi’s disaster relief protocol, the assessment phase, during which “you need to identify how bad the disaster was and how many people got affected,” was already complete. Moreover, she expected the next step, getting a list of households, would be simple. “I thought it would be easy because I’m a resident.” Unfortunately, that would not be the case.

Contacting the community board composed of Hillcrest Park residents, Ting introduced Tzu Chi and stated its intentions to provide disaster relief. “I received the response, ‘Who are you?’” she recounts, to which she replied, “Oh, I’m your neighbor.” Yet that didn’t facilitate getting any list. Since few people know about the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, hearing about it for the first time, they can react with suspicion.

No matter how big the disaster, the beginning is always tough. I experienced that a lot but never thought it would happen in my home, in my neighborhood. [And] I never really need to deal with this myself, right? I always leave it to the local volunteers to deal with it. So now, I’m the local volunteer. I have to face these challenges, and even though it’s a small disaster, only 16 households, it’s still very difficult.

“But you know me, I never give up,” Ting announced, describing how she gave the board plenty of videos, articles, and blogs about Tzu Chi USA and its activities. After reviewing the material, they asked about Master Cheng Yen, saying, “I want to talk to the nun. Is she still alive? Where is she?” Learning she is in Taiwan, they asked about Stephen Huang, who was instrumental in establishing Tzu Chi USA. Patiently, Ting countered with, “You probably don’t need to talk to him or Master Cheng Yen, as we have a local chapter in New York City; you can talk to the Executive Director, Freeman Su.”

Satisfied and discovering that Tzu Chi USA works in collaboration with the American Red Cross and Salvation Army, they asked if this was possible in Peekskill, which it certainly was. The board indicated they would relay Ting’s offer of Tzu Chi’s help to the Salvation Army. A day passed, and no one had contacted her.

I was really frustrated because it was almost four days after the fire. I can’t imagine the families’ situation. They lost everything. They might need money to buy things. They might have lost their credit cards. They need, they need cash. So that somehow motivated me, don’t give up.

Ting Fan (right) is thankful she can finally console her displaced neighbors and provide Tzu Chi's aid on January 19
Knowing the trauma of disaster survivors, Ting Fan (right) is thankful she can finally console her displaced neighbors and provide Tzu Chi's aid on January 19, 2023. Photo/Tzu Chi New York Team

Taking matters into her own hands, Ting searched and uncovered that Major Rickie Armour was the person to contact, found the Facebook page for the Salvation Army’s Peekskill Corps, and sent a message. It turns out that the page manager is Rickie Armour’s wife, and by the next day, he called. “I was so blessed,” Ting exclaimed, “I almost cried because he was very understanding. He was amazed by what we do.”

Noticing that Tzu Chi and the Salvation Army had worked side by side at Ground Zero after 911 created an instant bond, “I was at 911 as well,” Major Armour shared. “You said you worked with the Salvation Army in other countries,” he added, “so I didn’t have any doubt that you were legit at all.” However, he understood Ting’s frustrations about Tzu Chi’s lack of recognition, acknowledging how longevity plays a part: “The Salvation Army has been around for a long time, since 1865.” Ting’s sense of relief was immense, “everything started to be very smooth after I finally got in touch with Major Armour.”

As for the abruptly homeless residents of Hillcrest Park’s Building No. 3, many were facing their own challenges. “First, we were a little lost. We didn’t know the steps to take. We tried to search in the media. We tried to call insurance companies,” Carlos Alarcon explains. Others, like Toni Bizzarro, confronted different issues, “I lost everything, and I don’t have renters’ insurance, so I can’t get anything back.”

San San Chiang (right) and fellow Tzu Chi New York volunteers are ready to spring into action when disaster strikes in their region, as they did in Peekskill, distributing cash cards and blankets. Photo/Tzu Chi New York Team

Meanwhile, Tzu Chi New York volunteers were poised to provide disaster relief. “When we heard the news from our volunteer sister Ting Fan, we were eager to do something for the [disaster-affected] residents of this serene town,” volunteer San San Chiang relayed. Since they were already getting help with food and clothing, “what they need most is our distribution of emergency relief, giving them timely cash cards,” she said.

Major Armour confirmed that fact, elaborating that even their aid going forward would be fund-based. “We have a link where people can donate. That’s how we’re going to help the people in need because they really don’t need clothes, old clothes, or stuff like that. People were telling me they need furniture, they need utilities turned on, and they need apartments, they need a place to live. So, in order for them to obtain these things, they need help from the community. And we’ll help.”

Ting planned to provide $1,000 per household immediately, and Major Armour offered Tzu Chi the use of the Salvation Army Peekskill Corps Community Center for the distribution. Alas, then another demanding task appeared: Getting the word out and encouraging people to register for Tzu Chi USA’s disaster aid.

Conveniently, the Salvation Army Peekskill Corps Community Center is the disaster relief distribution site, as they have a food pantry and offer other services of benefit to the fire survivors. Photo/Tzu Chi New York Team

Gaining the Public’s Trust Is Another Challenge

Ting found a popular local Instagram account, @peekskill_exurbanist, and a Facebook group, Hillcrest Fire – Peekskill Community Support, where the Tzu Chi USA media team and Major Armour posted about the upcoming distribution. Unfortunately, people’s response was slow. Ting confided, “Major Armour got more phone calls than I did because people trust the Salvation Army, so all the phone calls went [there].” 

Given the situation, Major Armour did his best to facilitate contact. “He’d say, ‘Hey, this family called me,’” Ting narrated, “and even on the Martin Luther Day holiday, he still went back to the office to get me the phone numbers and asked me to reach out to the families.” Nonetheless, she pushed back the initially planned distribution date so there was more time to talk to people, although gaining the public’s trust was no easy matter.

“People don’t trust, and I kind of understand why because nowadays there are so many scammers, every day, scam calls, they try to get your information through things,” Ting acknowledged, “so thank God that we have social media, we have our Tzu Chi USA website, I have videos to show, and we have our partners’ testimonials that we’re really helping people.” Thus, she persevered.

Gradually, through everyone’s concerted effort, 19 individuals from 13 households registered, and the disaster relief distribution was set for January 19, two weeks after the fire had turned their lives upside down. For Ting, it was an opportunity to activate her philosophy and that of every Tzu Chi volunteer:

It was a small group of people, but each person, their life, their situation, is worth attention, right? We don’t help a hundred people and ignore ten. So, no matter if it’s big or small, I think Tzu Chi has the same goal and intention to help each individual.

Surprise and Relief

Each household that registered received a debit card loaded with $1,000, an amount of great surprise to many. Ting described their reaction, saying, “A lot of people, when we told them, ‘This is a $1,000 cash card,’ thought they heard you wrong. ‘Huh?’ And when San San or I repeated, ‘It’s $1,000,’ they would cry right away because they needed it so much.” She remembers one highly emotional care recipient who choked up, “He just kept saying, ‘I will pay it back,’ you know, ‘pay it forward.’”

Offering Tzu Chi bamboo banks, which encourage giving to help others in their time of need, is part of Tzu Chi’s global disaster relief protocol. Photo/Tzu Chi New York Team

Such responses and an eagerness to give back are not uncommon during Tzu Chi’s disaster relief missions worldwide. “That is how people react to Tzu Chi’s kindness,” Ting reflected. However, she had never personally initiated a disaster relief operation before, and one right next door to her home. “This time, it’s different for me. They’re friends, they’re family, they’re neighbors, you know, they’re part of my life here.”

Carlos Alarcon expressed his thanks, saying, “Everyone has been kind. With time and patience, we’ll move forward.” Toni Bizzarro, who has no insurance to fall back on, murmured, “I feel blessed.” Even those less vulnerable than Toni felt immensely grateful. “This is not a poor community. People have jobs. They have a regular income. But a disaster could happen to anyone,” Ting pointed out, so they still need attention and help to get their life back on track.

It’s like a weight off our shoulders that a Foundation that we didn’t even know about cared about people like us, so we were extremely, extremely happy about it. You’re like family to us now; you’ll be with us for life.

I feel the love right now, you know?

Major Rickie Armour actively participated in the distribution alongside Tzu Chi volunteers. He greeted care recipients as they arrived, assuring them things would get better. He also took advantage of the event on the Salvation Army premises to serve and give out food, provide counseling, and “we also had prayer with a couple of the people that came as well,” he added.

As for the Salvation Army’s partnership with Tzu Chi, Major Armour was thrilled, saying, “I’m so excited about this thing right now. I got the first hand and saw what you actually do. You guys do an amazing job. And so, for us to come together with you, we’re honored to work with you. We’re going to keep the ball rolling.” The two organizations’ collaboration on site was genuinely grounded in universal fellowship and love.

Roger Simon, who came to the distribution with his fiancée, Lauren Wellens, feels profoundly changed by the experience of receiving help from people he didn't even know before. Photo/Tzu Chi New York Team
Lauren Wellens reaches to hug a fellow fire survivor, hoping to soothe her anxiety in their mutually uncertain current situation. Photo/Tzu Chi New York Team

Major Rickie Armour actively participated in the distribution alongside Tzu Chi volunteers. He greeted care recipients as they arrived, assuring them things would get better. He also took advantage of the event on the Salvation Army premises to serve and give out food, provide counseling, and “we also had prayer with a couple of the people that came as well,” he added.

As for the Salvation Army’s partnership with Tzu Chi, Major Armour was thrilled, saying, “I’m so excited about this thing right now. I got the first hand and saw what you actually do. You guys do an amazing job. And so, for us to come together with you, we’re honored to work with you. We’re going to keep the ball rolling.” The two organizations’ collaboration on site was genuinely grounded in universal fellowship and love.

You know, we come from our hearts. I have a heart for God, and I have a heart for people, and I don’t like to see people struggling because there’s no need. If we come together the way God intended us to be, this comes from love. Heart to God, and hand to Man. So, this is who we are as the Salvation Army.

Loving Their Neighbors as Themselves

One could say that the entire community came together to follow the Golden Rule in Peekskill after the fire disaster of January 5, 2023. Perhaps Jenna Reilly, one of the residents of the decimated building who received Tzu Chi’s care, summed it up best: 

It’s absolutely amazing what the community has done, I mean, Ting being a neighbor of Hillcrest Park, to get this all organized for the neighbors. We’ve also all been in contact with one another, trying to look out for one another and stay in touch. And the community of Peekskill, the businesses of Peekskill, and everyone has really been supportive, and it’s making it better. You know, it’s not easy what we all went through, but having the community’s support is definitely uplifting and helping us move forward.

Through her job as Manager of the Peekskill Coffee House, a popular establishment in the center of town, Jenna could equally do her part to help by gathering supplies and donations for her fellow disaster-stricken neighbors. As for Ting and Major Armour, they’re already planning ahead.

You’ve helped them with a $1,000 gift card; that’s really unheard of. We look forward to continuing what you’ve done, and we’re going to stay with this until every one of these people is in a home.

Ting Fan works alongside the Tzu Chi team during the distribution. Photo/News 12 Connecticut Screenshot

“I’m really happy that I made it happen, you know,” Ting concluded after having launched and successfully executed this disaster relief mission. Still, long-term relief, which could extend to a few years, was already on her mind and in her heart. Moreover, she anticipates it will flow smoothly thanks to the closeness that blossomed during the past few weeks between herself and the care recipients, which will facilitate future communications.

They text me like a friend. That’s why I feel it will be easier for me to keep tracking. Once in a while, I’ll send them a message, ‘Hey, are you alright? Did you find a place to stay? What’s the situation?’ Yeah, so I think the story is not over. I think it will continue.

And that’s how it is not only in Peekskill, New York, in the United States but in places around the globe. Once Tzu Chi provides aid, remarkable developments can follow, benefiting others in need and forging a sense of neighborly fellowship that only deepens with time.

Ting Fan attentively drapes a Tzu Chi eco-scarf around a care recipient's neck, hoping Tzu Chi's aid brought comfort and boosted her morale on the long road to recovery after the Hillcrest Park fire disaster. Photo/Tzu Chi New York Team

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