Basement Deathtrap Got OK Twice

NY Times - November 09, 2009

by Erin Einhorn, Henrick Karoliszyn and Jonathan Lemire

The Queens deathtrap where three men perished in a raging fire was twice the target of a city investigation into illegally converted apartments, officials said Sunday.

Illegal renovations blocked possible escape routes from the two-story Woodside home, dooming the Bangladeshi men inside basement rooms when flames ignited at 2:45 a.m. Saturday, officials said. No criminal charges have yet been filed, but the Queens district attorney is mulling a probe, according to law enforcement sources.

Sd Jahan, 31, Abdul Kuddus, 24, and Biswajzit Das, 25, all died before firefighters could reach them. Rescuers were briefly slowed by a 911 dispatching error that mistakenly sent firefighters to the wrong address.

"It's totally the landlord's fault," said Muhammed Hasan, Jahan's uncle, of owner Subir Barua. "The basement is not a place for the living - [Barua] played with their lives."

The two-family 65th St. home, which had been illegally converted into a five-family residence with another seven single rooms, was inspected in 2004 and 1990 after the city Buildings Department got complaints it had been illegally divided, according to officials. Inspectors found nothing wrong either time, but the Buildings Department is now reviewing those findings.

"There is no evidence of any improper work," said Buildings Department spokesman Tony Sclafani. "But as part of any department investigation, we will conduct a thorough review of the inspection history at the site."

Barua, a pharmacist who bought the property in 1996, was in critical condition yesterday with severe burns. Two other men were also being treated for burns.

After the blaze, Barua, 48, was cited for illegal occupancy, failure to provide a basement exit and conducting renovations without a permit. The cause of the fire remains under investigation but it does not appear to be arson, according to FDNY officials.

The building's smoke detectors were not operational, according to officials.

Local politicians and the dead men's relatives were outraged yesterday by the lethal conditions inside the home.

"How many more firefighters do we have to put at risk before we crack down on these illegal subdivisions?" asked City Councilman Peter Vallone (D-Astoria).

"I thought the city had learned its lesson but apparently not," said Vallone. "It's outrageous that we allow these conditions to exist in New York."