Woodside Deathtrap Fueled By Oversight, Error & Greed

Queens Courier - November 12, 2009

by TONIA N. CIMINO

A Department of Buildings (DOB) vacate order stands at 42-40 65th Street in Woodside, but it seems like "too little too late."

The ingredients for disaster were all in place on Saturday, November 7 – a seeming lack of oversight, human error and basic greed – and now three men are dead following an early-morning blaze inside the two-story Woodside home which had been turned into a five-family dwelling with an additional seven rooms.

"It's very sad, people lost their lives," said a neighbor. "People shouldn't have been in the basement, it's illegal, and it's a fire trap."

The 2:45 a.m. blaze claimed the lives of three Bangladeshi immigrants – Sd Jahan, 31; Abdul Kuddus, 24; and Biswajzit Das, 25 – when their means of egress from the basement was reportedly blocked by construction materials.

The home's owner, Subir Barua, 48, suffered severe burns and was in critical condition. Two other men were also burned.

And firefighters responding to the scene were delayed when a 9-1-1 dispatcher mistakenly entered the wrong address, meaning they went to the wrong home.

Under the new system, which has come under fire by the Uniformed Firefighters' Association (UFA), responding units are sent out immediately by 9-1-1 dispatchers.

"The 9-1-1 dispatcher's main priority is speed," said Leroy McGinnis, Queens Trustee for the UFA. "Unfortunately in their haste in sending companies out, [sometimes it is] without the right information, even the address."

Saying that "This is the first [case] that has led directly to fatality," McGinnis told The Courier that Engine 292 would have only had to cross Queens Boulevard and go up 65th Street – meaning a two-and-a-half minute response time – but instead, they went west three blocks and had to be redirected. Their response time, he said, was just under five minutes.

"We're not saying that, had our units arrived [faster] we could have saved lives, but we didn't get the chance," he said. "The UFA and UFOA [Uniformed Fire Officers Association] are looking at the political aspect to rally local city councilmembers to investigate and look into the entire system."

An FDNY spokesperson said only that the fire was still under investigation.

On Sunday evening, November 8, an officer from the 108th Precinct stood outside the residence – and 42-38, which also has a vacate order – to ensure that no one entered either premise.

Since the tragedy, the DOB issued three violations – for work without a permit, for illegal occupancy and for no secondary means of egress.

Tony Sclafani, DOB spokesperson, explained that in 1990 and 2004, the agency received two separate complaints for illegal conversions at the site.

Both times, he said, "Inspectors found no evidence," and there had been no further complaints.

However, following the blaze, it was discovered that the top floor had been subdivided into two units – one with one bedroom, a second with two – and that the basement had four bedrooms.

Additionally, reports claim that there were not enough smoke detectors, and those in place were non-functional.

"Once again, New York's lack of affordable housing has led to tragedy with families forced to cram themselves into dangerous illegal conversions and building owners willing to compromise safety for profit," said City Councilmember Eric Gioia. "Illegal conversions are dangerous not only for tenants, but for firefighters who must fight blazes in buildings with unexpected barriers. To prevent tragedies like this from happening again, identifying illegal conversions and holding landlords accountable needs to be a priority for the city."

"I think it's greedy landlords," said a neighbor.