FDNY Eyes Arson In Early Morning Brooklyn Fire That Claims Life Of Teen Girl

NY Daily News - December 29, 2009

by Sarah Armaghan, Kerry Wills AND Katie Nelson

A suspicious fire Monday killed a vivacious 17-year-old on a sleepover and burned down a tattered Brooklyn house where residents were facing eviction.

Three firefighters and five residents were also injured in the fast-burning blaze that demolished a "death trap" on Harrison Place in Bushwick.

Sofia Olivo, 17, was visiting her best friend, 19-year-old Martha Quinones, who lived on the second floor, when the fire broke out. Everyone jumped out a second-story window or slid down a third-story fire escape, said Deputy Fire Chief Paul Mannix. Except Sofia.

"She's there, just lying there. She's dead!" wailed Rosa Olivo, 53, Sofia's mother. "She's dead because she didn't jump out of the window like everybody else."

Security video footage from the Flushing Meat and Provision Corp. across the street shows a bright flash of light inside the first floor of the building just after 4:20 a.m. and a person dashing outside. Two or three more people follow seconds later.

Flames engulfed the house by 4:23 a.m. Soon after, the building began to collapse and the fire had spread out onto the street.

It took New York's Bravest about two hours to get the ferocious fire under control, with the aid of more than 100 firefighters.

Arson investigators searched for clues Monday, including a red gas can found nearby, and were reviewing surveillance tapes. Police sources said there was a suspect in custody.

Alex (Aleisis) Ramos, 26, who also lives on the second floor, was luckier than Sofia: "I was sleeping in my room when I heard screaming," he said, still in his pajamas. "I had no choice. It was either jump or burn," he said, shaking.

The building was in horrid condition, tenants said. Firefighters agreed: "There were holes in the floor, the staircase was on very bad shape," Mannix said.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development took over the property in May 2004 because of foreclosure and the agency has been trying to evict the tenants since 2005 to make way for renovations, said HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan.

"We were seeking to relocate those families elsewhere in the city into units up to code," Sullivan said. "We were very aware that the building was in severe need of rehabilitation."

The residents balked at moving and were fighting in Kings County Housing Court with the help of Brooklyn Legal Services for the right to stay.

"The building was a deathtrap waiting to happen," said attorney David Bryan, who said the case is currently on appeal.

The building should have been boarded up years ago, said neighbor Jonathan Colon, 28. "Now look, it takes a tragedy like this for it to finally get shut down," he said.

Olivo was a bubbly, upbeat teen with curly hair and bright blue-green eyes, said her father, Antonio Olivo, 51, who sat weeping in her bedroom Monday.

With Kerry Burke, Rocco Parascandola, John Marzulli, and Simone Weichselbaum