A woman was killed and more than two dozen others were injured in a fire in the Jackson Heights section of Queens early Wednesday morning.
A burning candle sparked the flames at about 2:45 a.m. in a second-floor bedroom in a six-story apartment building at 37th Avenue and 89th Street. Everyone in the apartment escaped safely, but the blaze spread to the third floor because the front door was left open, fire officials said.
“Unfortunately, the door to the apartment was left open, and that created a flue that blew the fire out into the hallway,” said FDNY Assistant Chief Edward Kilduff. “And as the people were self-evacuating down the interior stairs, people were burnt and became disoriented. Many people actually became unconscious.”
One of them, 36-year-old Flora Penada, was found dead in the third-floor hallway. Twenty other residents were injured, including a 1-year-old and 7-year-old in serious condition. Six firefighters were hurt, including two with serious burns, and two police officers also suffered minor injuries.
“When I got into my living room, it was already filled with smoke,” said Israel Rodriguez, one of the residents. “I heard a lot of screaming. I looked out the back window. I saw a lot of smoke coming from the staircases. I saw a lot of people, a lot of yelling, a lot of commotion. Everybody was trying to get out.”
Panicked residents had to climb down the fire escapes in the middle of the frigid night.
“We had literally hundreds of people on the fire escape,” said Kilduff. “Our units threw up some ladders and did the best they could to help them down. But really our attention was primarily inside. We had to get those people out, because they were right in that flue that was created by the open door in the apartment.
Over 100 firefighters spent about two hours bringing the two-alarm blaze under control. It took firefighters an extra minute to arrive at the scene, because the first 911 caller gave the wrong address, officials said.
Some resident were allowed back into their apartments a few hours later, but about half a dozen families were not. The Red Cross is helping them find temporary shelter.
“We're trying; we’re working right now,” said the building manager, who only gave his name as Al. “We're getting all the crews in here to start the work that needs to be done immediately. Some are being relocated by the Red Cross. We're working right now to accommodate everybody.”
The Fire Department says such fires are more common during the holidays, because people light candles more often. Fire officials urge city residents not to leave burning candles unattended, and, in the event of a fire, to close the door behind them.
Meanwhile, the FDNY is defending itself against claims it was too slow responding to the fire.
Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta says firefighters were slowed down by a caller who accidentally gave the 911 dispatcher his own address instead of the address of the fire. Scoppetta says the firefighters did the best they could under the circumstances.
“The first engine got there, to the wrong address, in 4 minutes and 46 seconds, which is of course below the citywide average, and we got to the right address just one minute and one second later, when we straightened that out,” said the commissioner.
However, the head of the firefighters’ union blames staffing cuts for the slow down.
“Getting water on the fire was the most critical thing to slowing this down and rescuing those people. Unfortunately, it took them longer because they had less manpower,” said Uniformed Firefighters Association President Stephen Cassidy. “It absolutely had an impact on this fire, and anyone who says different doesn’t know a damn thing about fighting fires.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg says the fire could have been better contained if residents had closed the door to the burning apartment upon leaving the building.