by MICHELLE O'DONNELL
Four people, three of them young children, who lived in the cellar of a house in Queens were killed yesterday in an aggressive fire that was apparently started by a child playing with matches.
Two of the dead children, brothers ages 5 and 6, were found by firefighters in a closet in the cellar of 40-77 Denman Street in Elmhurst, where they had apparently tried to hide as the smoke and heat built up around them, Deputy Assistant Fire Chief Howard Hill said. The third child, the boys' sister, 1? years old, was found in her crib, while an 87-year-old man, who also lived in the cellar, was found at the bottom of a staircase, officials said.
Jennifer Gaston, the 27-year-old mother of the young victims and of two other children, tried unsuccessfully to douse the fire and save the three.
Her brother, who also lived with the family, escaped. One person from the home was hospitalized last night at Elmhurst Hospital.
At least 21 people lived in the house, according to the Red Cross. All the survivors were displaced last night, as fire investigators pored through the gutted building.
Louis Garcia, the chief fire marshal, said at 1:30 this morning that the fire began with a child playing with matches, but he did not elaborate on which child. Earlier, officials said that a mattress pushed against an electric heater might have started the fire.
The fire was first reported at 6:17 p.m. and spread so rapidly through the century-old house that a second alarm was called as soon the first crews arrived, at 6:23 p.m. More than 100 firefighters took several hours to put out the blaze, according to Francis X. Gribbon, a spokesman for the department.
Still, as the flames consumed the upper floors of the house, firefighters were unable to reach the trapped children and elderly resident in time, neighbors said.
Moments before firefighters arrived, neighbors said they had heard Ms. Gaston outside in the chilly air calling for help as she held her 6-month-old daughter, Ashley.
"I saw the blaze on the side of the house, and I saw her on the floor screaming with the baby outside," said Jannette Anton, who lives in a house across the street. "She was yelling because her kids are in the basement. The fire just kept getting bigger and bigger. The baby only had a onesie on, that's why I grabbed the baby."
Cindy Sanchez, 27, a friend of Ms. Gaston said that she saw Ms. Gaston soon after the fire broke out, pacing with growing hysteria outside and sparring with firefighters and police officers who had to restrain her from re-entering the burning apartment to reach her other children.
"She was pacing back and forth," Ms. Sanchez said. "She was in so much shock she had no expression. Her face was blank."
After handing Ashley to her neighbor, Ms. Gaston tried to douse the blaze before running back outside.
She also tried to take her 6-year-old son, Richie, with her, but he ran back inside the house, Ms. Sanchez said.
In addition to Richie, Ms. Gaston's 5-year-old son, Christian, and 1?-year-old daughter, Jocelyn, were killed, officials said. A neighbor said that the elderly man who died was a tenant named Israel.
There were differing accounts about whether Brandon, Ms. Gaston's 9-year-old son, had been rescued by his mother or had been staying nearby at the home of a neighbor.
Fire marshals and detectives were talking to Ms. Gaston and her brother, George, last night about the events before the fire, officials said.
The blaze caused the greatest loss of life in the city in a single fire since January, when a suspicious fire tore through an apartment in Crown Heights, killing four.
The Fire Department reached last night's fire in six minutes. A response within six minutes is a national guideline, although in New York City, the average response time is 4 minutes and 35 seconds.
Mr. Gribbon, the department spokesman, said that the two closest companies had been dispatched to an alarm at the Queens Theater minutes before, requiring other companies to respond.
Fire officials said they were also investigating whether the apartment was a legal residence. In New York City, cellar apartments, or dwellings where the living space is more than half below ground, are illegal. Basement apartments, or dwellings in which at least half the living space is above ground, are legal. Last night, fire officials referred to the apartment as a cellar dwelling, but could not say whether it was illegal.
Neighbors said that the cellar was carved into two separate units. Ms. Sanchez said the family occupied two small rooms and the elderly man had a single room.
John Louis, an emergency responder with the Red Cross, said four people lived in the first floor of the house, seven on the second floor and two in the attic. Nine of the survivors were being put up in a Queens hotel, Mr. Louis said.
According to city property records, the building is owned by Daniel Guaman, who is listed as living at the address. He could not be reached for comment last night.
Standing outside the 110th Precinct station house where some family members had been interviewed by investigators, Frank Guido, 55, the children's stepgrandfather, said he was in shock over the children's deaths. "Great kids," said Mr. Guido, a plumber who lives in Briarwood.
"They were over for Thanksgiving. That's the last time I've seen them.
Now it's just the oldest and the youngest."
Colin Moynihan and Matthew Sweeney contributed reporting for this article.