Arson Suspected as Girl Dies in a Brooklyn Fire

NY Times - December 29, 2009


There was little question that someone set fire to a federally owned walk-up apartment building in Brooklyn early Monday, killing a 17-year-old girl and injuring five others.

And there was little question how: Police and fire investigators found a can of gasoline in the vestibule of the building, at 55 Harrison Place, near the Williamsburg-Bushwick border, and the pattern of burn marks indicated that gasoline had been poured on the vestibule's floor, the authorities said.

The questions that remain are why and who.

A surveillance video showed a man entering the three-story building shortly before the fire began, and the man was shown leaving as the flames began to erupt, the authorities said.

About 100 firefighters responded to the fire beginning around 4:30 a.m., encountering heavy flames that took two hours to get under control. Five residents, including one with serious injuries, were taken to hospitals, as were two firefighters who suffered minor injuries.

Investigators were still trying to determine the motive Monday evening. The building was so heavily damaged that it will have to be torn down, officials said.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development said that the building, which in March was cited by the city for dozens of violations, was among 450 troubled buildings that the agency acquired around 2004. Many required extensive repairs.

But of the 450, the department was unable to refurbish 6, including the Harrison Place building, because of difficulties with tenants, department officials said.

The agency has asked the tenants, who have not paid rent since 2004, to move so the building can be fixed. The department has offered to pay for relocation expenses, but the tenants have declined to move, officials said. Several eviction efforts were rejected in Brooklyn housing court.

Since 2004, the department has received several complaints that drugs were being dealt in the building. And the department's contractors, including a building supervisor and an architect who was trying to develop repair plans, had been rebuffed repeatedly by tenants who would not allow them to enter their units.

In March, city officials did a "roof to basement" assessment of the building, finding 75 violations, including a dozen that were considered immediately hazardous. Among the violations were several for not having working fire and carbon monoxide detectors in apartments. A spokesman for the Fire Department said Monday evening that it was not known whether there were working fire detectors in the building.

Neighbors described a chaotic scene in which several people jumped out of windows in their nightclothes, and a scramble to account for everyone. In the end, one person was missing: Sofia Olivo, a senior at Grover Cleveland High School in Queens.

Ms. Olivo, who did not live in the building, was sleeping over at the home of her best friend, Martha Quinones, 19.

Tenants and neighbors said Ms. Olivo would not jump to escape the flames. Ms. Quinones leapt from the second floor, breaking her ankle, a neighbor said.

Alex Ramos, who also lived on the second floor, jumped from a window and ran around the corner to the home of his sister, Marilyn Colon, limping and bleeding from his hand, she said. He shouted that there was a fire.

Ms. Colon said she rushed to the scene, where Ms. Quinones collapsed on top of her, screaming and repeating Sofia's name as the fire raged.

None of the residents or the neighbors could find Ms. Olivo on the street, and they had heard from the firefighters that someone was trapped inside.

"Everyone was praying, don't let it be her," Ms. Colon said.

Ms. Olivo's father, Antonio Olivo, said that he received a call from Ms. Quinones shortly before 5 a.m. "Her first words were, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry,' " he said. " 'We can't find Sofia.' "

Hours later, Mr. Olivo struggled to hold himself together as he walked home. His wife had gone to her mother's house, but he insisted on returning to his house, to see his daughter's room. "She was 17," he said, as his eyes welled with tears. "She just wanted to live, that's all. She loved to live."

In his home, Mr. Olivo reflected on one of his last conversations with his daughter. He said he had wanted her to stay home.

"She goes, 'Dad, you don't have to worry about me,' " he said.

"If somebody did set it, I want to know who did it," Mr. Olivo said. "The Lord got to do something."

Toby Lyles contributed reporting.