Afraid to jump to safety, 2 children perish in fire

SI Advance - December 11, 2005

by JOHN J. O'BRIEN

Despite the anguished screams of their older sister pleading with them to jump to safety, two children perished in a fire that engulfed their Oakwood Beach home early yesterday.

After jumping from a second-story window to escape, Bonnie Antonucci begged her younger brother and sister to do the same.

Fear kept the youngsters from following her and cost them their lives.

The victims, Preston Pearl, 10, and his sister, Stormy Melendez, 6, were found dead by firefighters after they were trapped on the second floor of their family's L-shaped, split-level ranch located at 134 Tarlton St., at the corner of Cedar Grove Avenue.

Investigators are focusing on faulty wiring in the kitchen, located directly below the children's bedrooms, as a possible cause.

When firefighters arrived on the scene at about 2:20 a.m., the house was entirely in flames.

Ms. Antonucci, 13, escaped with her baby brother, 3-year-old Chance Melendez, but he suffered severe burns to his face and body.

Joe Torillo, a fatal fires consultant working with the FDNY, said Ms. Antonucci jumped out a back window and injured her ankle, but the boy and girl "stayed behind."

Witnesses said Ms. Antonucci tried in vain to convince her younger siblings to jump by yelling up to them, "but they didn't because the fire was too hot near the window."

More than 100 firefighters from 25 units took an hour to extinguish the two-alarm fire.

From her Tarlton Street home half a block away, Barbara Mercado said she could see thick, black smoke rising above the Melendez residence, which is about 250 yards from the beach.

"I didn't want to go down there. It was too upsetting. This is a devastating situation," said Mrs. Mercado, associate executive director for Community Resources, a not-for-profit organization that services 2,500 developmentally disabled and mentally ill Staten Islanders.

"The house is just a shell now."  

A staircase leading up to the second-floor bedroom, where the children were later found by firefighters, was completely burned away, officials on the scene said.

Chance, the 3-year-old who survived, was found huddled with his sister inside a parked car outside their home by firefighters as they arrived on the scene. They were rushed to Staten Island University Hospital, Ocean Breeze.

"We quickly learned there were children trapped in the house," said Division 8 Deputy Chief James Leonard.

Firefighters immediately "made an aggressive attack" against the fire with water hoses, trying to gain entry to save the young boy and girl, but to no avail.

According to a University Hospital spokesperson, Chance was being treated by Dr. Jerome Finklestein, chief of the hospital's burn unit, who said the child was in critical, but stable condition.

RELEASED FROM HOSPITAL

Ms. Antonucci was released from the hospital yesterday afternoon.
According to authorities, the children's father, Hector Melendez, was home at the time of the fire. Later, at the hospital, he sat slumped in shocked silence with family members sitting vigil for Chance. He did not offer comment.

Witnesses to the fire said that the children's mother, Susan Melendez, had arrived home from work just ahead of the Fire Department, and screamed when she saw fire and smoke pouring from her home. The house was 90 percent engulfed when firefighters arrived, said Deputy Chief Leonard.

Ten firefighters sustained minor injuries, he said.  

Family members waiting at the hospital told the Advance that Mrs. Melendez was so distraught that doctors had placed her under suicide watch.

"She has a job as a cab driver and she was just getting home," said Joy Gentile, Mrs. Melendez's sister, who rushed to the Island from Putnam County yesterday morning when she heard the news.

"My babies, they were so beautiful," sobbed Linda, the children's grandmother, who would only give her first name.

She said her granddaughter, Stormy, was a classic looking little girl, with long blonde hair and blue-green eyes, "just like a Bratz doll."

A cousin, Marty Smyth, who is a ninth-grader living in Paramus, N.J., said Preston was an agile youth who excelled at football and basketball and played in youth sports leagues.

"I was surprised he (Preston) got trapped because he could move so fast," said the children's grandmother. "He was so lithe."

Preston's friends gathered near his home yesterday, grieving his death.

One friend, Rob Schiavona, 11, agreed with Preston's grandmother when describing his friend's athletic prowess. "I played football with him, and he was real good."

"He (Preston) was nice, giving, friendly and never started fights," said 11-year-old Richard D'Arpe, who said he was friends with Preston and hung out together for the past three years.

Jerry Improta, 10, used to take the bus with Preston to PS 50 in Oakwood. "I'm so sad because he was a real good friend."

DAZES WITH GRIEF

Hector Melendez spent most of the day in the hospital burn unit with his toddler son, often shuffling into the cold air outside to smoke a cigarette, appearing dazed with grief. He was joined by a number of family members.

Melendez moved to Brooklyn from Puerto Rico when he was 8, but has lived on the Island for many years.

He works as a public school custodian at several schools, including New Dorp High School, and was a member of a Spanish rap group, performing at clubs in Manhattan and also in Brooklyn and Queens.

"They were beautiful kids, sweet, beautiful, fantastic," said a family friend.

Yesterday's tragedy comes two days after an 8-year-old boy ignited a fire at his Queens home that killed three of his younger siblings and an elderly man. TAG:-- News reporters Deborah Young and Jodi Lee Reifer contributed to this report. TAG:--Material from Newsday was used in this report.