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Devastating Elmhurst, Queens Fire Was Completely Preventable, Prosecutors Say

CBS 2 - April 15, 2017

by CBS Local

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Arson charges have been filed against a Westchester County contractor in a devastating fire in Elmhurst, Queens this week – and prosecutors said the fire was entirely preventable.

As CBS2’s Tony Aiello reported, the extra-alarm fire broke out Tuesday evening on the top floor of the building at 56-11 94th St., between 56th and 57th avenues. Dozens of people were burned out of their homes, and 11 firefighters were injured.

“We were just in shock,” said Lizwa Sharifuddin, “It’s just like a disaster zone.”

Sharifuddin said it has been an exhausting two days since the fire heavily damaged 75 units in her building. The blaze pretty much destroyed everything in the sixth-floor apartment she shares with a roommate.

Video showed the mess left after the roof collapsed into their living space.

“All the roof particles were down in our living room, our bedrooms, our kitchens — everywhere.” Sharifuddin said. “You walk around, it’s all slushy on the ground.”

Displaced resident Audrey Clausen said the past few days have been “terrible.”

“I mean I’m like, am I in a dream,” she said. “We’re just hoping to get back on our feet. We’re doing the best that we can.”

The displaced residents are tired, and now they are angry to learn about arson charges against Declan McElhatton, 52, of Yonkers. The FDNY said he led a work crew from the firm Maintenance Asset Management that improperly used a torch while repairing the roof.

A source said the FDNY does not believe McElhatton deliberately set the fire, but he was charged because of the torch.

After a series of roof fires in 1999, the city got tough on contractors who use blowtorches for repairs. Underneath the roof membrane on many of the buildings is wood.

The fire on Tuesday smoldered inside the roof for some time before erupting into a five-alarm inferno.

A representative for the building management company would not talk to CBS2 on Thursday. Residents want to know who is responsible for hiring a contractor who allegedly used improper equipment.

“It’s frustrating to put so many people’s lives in the hands of people who are incompetent,” said displaced resident Lionel Leon Ledesma.

McElhatton faces arson and reckless endangerment charges. The FDNY hopes it sends a message to other roofing contractors that they must follow the rules using torches or they will face the consequences.

A spokesman for the building owner said Thursday evening that the contractor was hired to do “minor pitching” on the roof – a job he has performed before.

In a letter from building management, residents were told they will be reimbursed for the remainder of their April rent, and they will not be asked to pay rent until repairs are completed. Residents who wish to terminate their leases early are being allowed to do so with no penalty and security deposits will be refunded, the letter said.

Meanwhile, McElhatton was arraigned Thursday night before Judge Ushir Pandit-Durant in Queens Criminal court. Bail was set at $50,000 bond or $30,000 cash.

McElhatton is due back in court on Thursday, April 27. If convicted, he faces up to four years in prison.

A lawyer for McElhatton refused comment Thursday afternoon.