3 Killed, 4 Hurt in Woodside, Queens Blaze That Broke Out in Illegal Basement Apartment

NY Daily News - November 08, 2009

by Sarah Armaghan, Wil Cruz, Henrick Karoliszyn, Kerry Wills and Larry Mcshane

Three men died in a raging Queens basement fire early Saturday, doomed by illegal renovations that blocked their escape as firefighters were sent to the wrong address.

A fourth badly burned man was found beneath a basement window after his desperate attempt to flee the smoke and flames that tore through the Woodside home at 2:45 a.m., fire officials said.

As the victims tried in vain to find an escape route, a 911 dispatcher mistakenly sent firefighters to the wrong address, the FDNY acknowledged.

The three victims - Sd Jahan, 31, and two other men who had not yet been identified - were Bangladeshi immigrants.

Fire officials said the basement was illegally subdivided into four single rooms.

"I heard a loud bang, and looked out the window and saw flames coming from the basement," said neighbor Pat Jiminez, 36. "I heard screaming. I saw smoke. ... It was raging."

Firefighters arrived at the flaming two-story deathtrap to find one burned survivor just inside the front door.

One of the dead men was found in the basement, while a second died in the backyard despite desperate efforts to revive him. A third died at Elmhurst Hospital Center.

"There was construction that probably blocked" their escape, said FDNY spokesman Jim Long.

The two-family home was illegally turned into a five-family residence with another seven single rooms, a Buildings Department official said at the scene.

While the FDNY said the fire response time of just under five minutes was "very good," fire union officials questioned the dispatcher's mistake.

The union has criticized a new policy where units are sent out immediately by 911 operators, claiming the attention to speed comes at the cost of accuracy.

"We'll never know if we could have saved all three," said Leroy McGinnan, the firefighters union trustee for Queens. "But we would have had a fighting chance if units were on the scene."

The FDNY said the dispatcher was given the right address, but typed in the wrong number, sending units to 42-40 62nd St. instead of the correct address on 65th St.

"We have a situation here of human error," Long said.

Three male survivors suffered burns and smoke inhalation, while one woman was treated at the scene, Long said. The three men went to the New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Burn Center.

Shyamal Datta, 38, was in critical condition, but survived the blaze, said his brother-in-law.

Datta, who works as a LaGuardia Airport security guard, has a family living in Bangladesh, said Lipton Biswas, 38, of Queens.

The cause was under investigation, although it appeared an exposed basement boiler was possibly to blame.

The building's owner, identified by family and friends as Subir Barua, was on a respirator with severe burns at the Manhattan center, said his brother, Ranabar Barua.

Subir Barua, 48, was cited for illegal occupancy, failure to provide a basement exit and conducting renovations without a permit.

The basement had no smoke detectors, and the detectors on the two upper floors had no batteries, Long said.

His brother said Subir Barua had lived in the house for about 13 years, commuting to his job as a pharmacist on Long Island. His wife and two adult children lived there as well.