Cause Sought in Fatal Fire; 130 Left Homeless in Bronx

NY Times - November 29, 2010

by CARA BUCKLEY and NOAH ROSENBERG

Investigators were trying on Sunday to determine the cause of a fire that broke out in the lobby of a Bronx apartment building on Saturday night and leapt up a staircase, forcing many residents to flee down fire escapes. A man was killed, and a woman was injured when she jumped from a second-floor fire escape.

Firefighters found the body of the man in the stairwell of the building, at 131 East 169th Street. Nine people, including two firefighters, suffered minor injuries in the blaze, which took 106 firefighters more than a half-hour to bring under control.

One resident, Rene Larreina, 35, said that he, his wife and their three children had escaped by crawling from their window. Jose Ojeda, 46, who had been watching television in the basement with his three brothers when the fire broke out, said they raced up the stairs to help others get out.

The fire left 130 people homeless, according to John Cruz, a senior supervisor of response for the Red Cross of Greater New York. Most stayed with family and friends. The Red Cross established a shelter for 31 people at Public School 64 nearby.

On Sunday afternoon, about five dozen tenants huddled outside the five-story brown-brick building, just west of the Grand Concourse, waiting to be allowed back in. They sipped hot chocolate, some draped in Red Cross blankets. Many of the building's windows were smashed, and yellow caution tape stretched across the entrance.

Shortly after noon, small groups of tenants were escorted inside to gather necessities like medication, clothes, identification papers and money.

"Everything was black - black," said Reggie Ridley, 25, who shared a fourth-floor apartment, as he emerged from the building with a plastic bag of wrapped Christmas presents.

"I'm Santa Claus" in my family, Mr. Ridley said with a smile, gesturing at the gifts. "I said, 'I'm not going to let that go to waste, not for the young ones.' "

The most heavily damaged units were in the building's western wing. "They're going to be seeking long-term housing," Mr. Cruz said.

A colleague identified the dead man as Juan Marte, 46, a barber at the High Class Barbershop on the Grand Concourse.

Rodolfo Abreu, 22, another barber, said Mr. Marte had come from the Dominican Republic about 20 years ago and lived in the building with his wife and two daughters.

"He used to say that he didn't want to die like this, in a fire or by drowning," Mr. Abreu said.

"We're going to miss him a lot," he added. "But I'm sure we're going to keep him in our hearts."