Pioneering Hardhat Who Sued For $20M In Sexual Harassment Case Dies In Fire

NY Daily News - October 19, 2009

by Erin Durkin and Jonathan Lemire

A pioneering female hardhat who was suing her construction company employer for sexual harassment was killed in a fire that ripped through her Queens home Sunday, neighbors and officials said.

Bianca Wisniewski, who filed a $20 million suit this summer that charged she was propositioned at JPMorgan Chase's Park Ave. construction site, was sleeping when flames erupted in her apartment in the Pomonok Houses, her neighbors said.

"I tried to wake them up," said a mournful Demetric Bowman, who tried valiantly to rouse Wisniewski's family.

"I stayed there a long time, banging on that door," said Bowman, 32. "It's the most horrible feeling to know someone's in the apartment and there's a fire and you can't do anything."

Wisniewski, 44, died at New York Hospital Queens. Her 17-year-old daughter, Olivia, and two adult male relatives were also home and were unconscious when firefighters pulled them from the flames.

Another daughter, Nicole, 16, was not home when the fire broke out.

All three surviving victims were transferred to the burn center at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, where they were in critical but stable condition, officials said.

"The door was hot and there was smoke coming out," said Bowman. "The smoke was coming through cracks in [the] door [and] the door was really hot."

The cause of the fire, which started in the living room of Wisniewski's fifth-floor home, was not immediately known, but FDNY officials said it was not considered suspicious.

Wisniewski's boyfriend, Bogdon Balamut, voiced doubts, explaining Wisniewski had told him of strange phone calls she had been receiving.

"I just hope they investigate carefully," Balamut said. "Why did this happen now?"

He said Olivia was having trouble getting oxygen to her lungs but was going to survive.

Firefighters were briefly slowed in their response to the blaze after a 911 dispatcher gave them an incorrect address, just around the corner, FDNY sources said. The mixup is under investigation.

Wisniewski, a Polish immigrant, embarked upon a career in the construction industry to show her daughters a woman could thrive in a male-dominated field.

"I loved working in the field," she told the Daily News in July. "Every day when everybody goes home and everybody is safe, it's a good thing."

She took over as safety coordinator at JPMorgan Chase's 270 Park Ave. construction site in 2007 and claimed that she was constantly harassed.

When she complained, she was removed from her position and later fired - leading her to sue JPMorgan Chase and her firm, Total Safety Consulting of Queens.

With Sarah Armaghan and Kevin Deutsch