NY Daily News - May 29, 2012by Kerry Wills And Daniel Beekman
Big Van Nest fire cause not yet determinedThe Van Nest house that sparked a brutal blaze April 14 was demolished without approval from the Buildings Department and despite an ongoing investigation by fire marshals. The four-alarm fire destroyed three other buildings and displaced several families. Two residents and 20 firefighters were injured, including one fireman who was trapped when floors collapsed.
After Buildings Dept. inspectors told property owner Udechi Chukwu to raze 726 Van Nest Ave. because it was in danger of collapse, Chukwa paid a contractor to do it, but failed to obtain the necessary permits. Chukwu, 46, said the contractor moved ahead without the permits. Both were slapped with four violations April 19. They will appear in court June 15 and could face fines.
The demolition will make it more difficult for fire marshals to discover what started the blaze.
Failing to obtain permits for demolition work puts the public in danger, said Buildings Dept. spokesman Tony Sclafani. We issue the violations to hold the owner and contractor accountable.
The fire is still under investigation.
The previous owner of 726 Van Nest was issued violations for illegal subdivisions and illegal occupancy on the second and third floors of the building. The violations were deemed resolved after the previous owner paid fines and submitted affidavits that he corrected the problems.
Crowded subdivisions cluttered with extension cords often become dangerous firetraps that lack escape routes.
Chukwu, a church pastor, said he built no subdivisions. The second and third floors include five bedrooms and just three people lived there before the fire, he said.
He said his church occupied the ground floor and basement.
Now all that remains of the house is a mountain of debris, another eyesore on the block, along with the three fire-ravaged buildings.
The property's insurance had lapsed.
The community is concerned about the whole situation, said Bernadette Ferrara, vice president of the Van Nest Neighborhood Alliance, a local civic group.
Meanwhile, former residents of the buildings destroyed by the blaze are looking for help. Christine Gonzalez had insurance and her home, 732 Van Nest Ave., is still standing. But permit delays have kept her from repairing her roof. Rainwater has damaged the house and burglars have stolen electronics and clothing, she said.
Every time it rains, it rains in here, Gonzalez said.