Fires and Illegal Occupancy

Fires have long plagued the housing stock of NYC and our extensive housing, building and fire codes have been a model to improve fire safety in residential buildings. However, as more and more people are unable to find legal and safe accommodations they resort to living in spaces that do not meet the minimum safety requirements: households living in spaces not legal for residential use and households living in spaces that are utilized in ways that are not permitted.

Illegal occupancy can result in loss of life due to fires occurring where escape routes are blocked and/or illegal partitions are erected which can trap both occupants and firefighters.

CHPC is compiling all NYC newspaper references to fires in illegal dwellings since 1996. There is no single source for incidents of illegal occupancy in NYC. The events listed below made their way into newspaper stories and do not represent all fires that may be associated with illegal occupancy:

April 2011
The Mortgage was Like a Shell Game

: a 12 year old boy and his parents
:  2321 Prospect Avenue in the Belmont section of the Bronx. “On Monday morning, when a fire in the building killed three people who lived on the top floor, it was a warren of rooms nested inside rooms. As the stairway roared with flames, illegally built walls blocked access to the fire escape for Manuel Lopez and Christina Garcia and their 12-year-old son, Christian Garcia.”

February 2010

Violations Are Found at Building in Brooklyn Where 5 Died in Fire
Fatalities: 5 Guatemalan men
Injuries: 1 – a baby suffered a fractured skull
Where: 2033 86th Street in Bensonhurst. Investigators from the Buildings Department found that apartments on the second and third floors were illegally subdivided, including a two-bedroom apartment that had been converted into four units.
Additional reporting: Initial report – New York Times

November 7, 2009
4 Are Killed in 2 Fires in Queens and Brooklyn
, New York Times
3 Bangladeshi men:  Sd Jahan, 31; Abdul Kuddus, 24; and, Biswajzit Das, 25
Injuries: 4
Where: 42-40 65th Street, the site of a two-family home in Woodside, Queens that was illegally converted into a five-family residence, with five kitchens and five bathrooms, and subsequently divided into seven rooms for single occupancy, with residents, totaling 10 people, sharing bathrooms and kitchens. The fatalities took place in the basement apartments, of which there were four.
Additional reporting: New York Post, New York Daily News.

November 7, 2009
4 Are Killed in 2 Fires in Queens and Brooklyn, NewYork Times

Philip Salvadone, 43
Where: A boarding house on Hale Avenue in Brooklyn where six men lived.

March 7, 2007
8 Children Are Among Dead in Bronx Fire, New York Times
Fatalities: 9 total, eight being children ranging in age from infants to 11-years-old:  Fatoumata Soumare, 45, the mother of three of the dead children, Djibril Soumare, age 3, and 7-month-old twins, Sis and Harouma; and, five other children from a second family, Diaba Magassoa, 3; Mahamadou Magassa, 8; Bilaly Magassa, 1; Bandiougou Magassa, 11; and Abudubucary Magassoa, 5.
Injuries: 19, including four firefighters, an emergency medical work, and other residents of the house
Where: 1022 Woodycrest Avenue, the site of a three-story, 100-year-old wooden home in the Highbridge neighborhood in the Bronx where three families totaling 22 people, comprised of 17 children and five adults, from the West African nation of Mali lived.
Additional reporting: New York Post.

January 23, 2005
3 Firefighters Killed in Bronx and Brooklyn
, New York Times
Firefighter John Bellew, 37, of Pearl River and Lt. Curtis Meyran, 46, of Long Island
Where: 236 E 178th Street, in the third and fourth floor apartments of a building in the Tremont section of the Bronx. The blaze started on the third floor, where a three-bedroom apartment was converted into a five-bedroom apartment; and, the blaze spread to a fourth floor apartment that also had extra rooms built into it as well.
Additional reporting: New York Times.

April 2, 2003
Overcrowding Cited in Fire That Killed 4 In Brooklyn, New York Times
Fatalities: 4 victims:  Roger Prophete, 79; Volcy Joseph, 59; Marcel St. Jour, 22; and, Chrystal Lee, 13.
Where: 2586 Bedford Avenue, the site of a three-story building in East Flatbush, Brooklyn that had been illegally converted into five apartments with at least seven families living there total.

Brooklyn fire kills 2; 1 hurt
Fatalities: Shawn Price, 32, and Robert Hunter, 24
Where: 230 India Street, the site of a three-story brick building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.  It is believed that the owner illegally converted the building into single rooms for transients and immigrant residents.

February 13, 2000
5 Hurt in Queens Fire in Illegal Cellar Units, NY Daily News
5:  two sisters ages 63 and 64; two men ages 36 and 50; and, a 27-year-old woman visiting her boyfriend
Where: 39-16 104th Street, the site of a two-story building in Corona, Queens whose cellar was illegally converted into six cubbyhole apartments, each big enough for one mattress and a plastic bag full of clothes only.

August 1998
The Battle of Richmond Hill, City Limits Magazine
Fatalities: a Guyanese seamstress and her daughter
Where: An illegal attic apartment.

June 8, 1998
Fire at Overcrowded Queens House Kills 1, New York Times
Fatalities: 1 killed
Injuries: 9, including a woman eight months pregnant who survived the fire by jumping two stories to the sidewalk.
Where: 163-14 109th Avenue, the site of a two family home in South Jamaica, Queens which had been illegally subdivided into six apartments where 15 people total, comprised of 10 families, resided.

June 1997
1 Dead, 4 Hurt in Brooklyn Blaze
Fatalities: 1 woman died
Injuries: 4 injured
Where: 950 Avenue, the site of a three-story brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn where 12 people from seven families lived.

April 20, 1997
The Battle of Richmond Hill, City Limits Magazine
Fatalities: 4 people
Where: An illegally wired Maspeth boardinghouse in Queens, NY where sixteen occupants, mostly poor, Polish day laborers, leapt from second- and third-story windows to escape the flames.

February 13, 1996
Not Just Shabby and Dismal, Illegal Apartments Can Kill, New York Times
Fatalities: 3:  30 year-old single mother of 6, Renee Oates; her 3-year old daughter Ebony; and Ms. Oates 20 year-old boyfriend Kevin Young
Where: 109-39 156th Street, the site of a 2-story, 2-family dwelling with a large basement and usable attic in South Jamaica, Queens that was turned into a ramshackle boarding house that was divided up into at least 8 units. The fatalities took place in one of the makeshift attic units.