from an account from the nytimes
Before City’s Worst Fire in Years, History of Neglect, By RAY RIVERA and COLIN MOYNIHAN
The building in Chinatown where an enormous blaze started late Sunday night had more than two dozen open violations for hazardous conditions, including missing smoke detectors, lead paint and other problems that signified a history of neglect, city records show.
Tenants had complained through the winter that they had no heat and that the building was riddled with mold and exposed wiring. At the same time, the owners had put the building on the market for the third time in five years with no apparent success.
Late Monday night, firefighters recovered the body of a missing 87-year-old man from the top floor of one of the three buildings where the fire had spread. Earlier, they had been unable to get into the building to search because of the danger of a collapse, but at 8:20 p.m., they found the body of a man identified by his relatives as Sing Ho.
At its peak, the fire was visible from across the East River. Hundreds of tenants were evacuated; it was a seven-alarm blaze, drawing some 250 firefighters to battle it. Fire officials said it was the largest blaze in the city in more than two years.
By the time the fire was under control, about 2:15 a.m. on Monday, some 200 people had been left homeless and dozens had been injured.
Two elderly men who lived in one of the buildings, on Grand Street, were treated for smoke inhalation and listed in serious to critical condition at Beth Israel Medical Center on Monday, said Firefighter James Long, a department spokesman. A Beth Israel spokeswoman said Monday night that the hospital had treated about a dozen people, and that all of them had been released except for one, who was in stable condition.
Investigators were trying to determine what started the fire, in which 33 other people were hurt, including 29 firefighters who suffered minor injuries. Officials said there was no reason to believe the fire was arson, but as of Monday evening, fire marshals had not been able to go into the rubble to search for clues.
Julie Chen, 26, who lived on the fourth floor of the building at 283 Grand Street, where the fire started, said, “I have everything up there.” Staring up at the smoldering hulk on Monday, she added: “I’m lucky I have a pair of shoes right now. I don’t know where to go.” Firefighters did not learn that the 87-year-old was missing until two women showed up at Councilwoman Margaret Chin’s district office about 3 p.m. seeking news about their father’s whereabouts.
“They went through every single hospital looking for him,” Ms. Chin said hours before the body was found. Mr. Ho lived on the top floor of 285 Grand Street with one of his daughters, who was at work when the fire broke out, Ms. Chin said.
In the chaos of the blaze, it took some time for the daughters to realize he was missing, Ms. Chin said. She added that the family had presumed he was dead.
Firefighter Long said the blaze broke out in the back of a store on the ground level of 283 Grand Street, a century-old, six-story building fronted by fire escapes. Pillars of flame shot over the rooftops as the fire quickly spread. By midnight, it had reached seven alarms, the first to do so since the Deutsche Bank building fire in August 2007, which sent plumes of smoke over ground zero and left two firefighters dead.
Ms. Chin, whose district includes the buildings, said 283 Grand Street and 285-287 Grand next door, suffered the brunt of the damage and would have to be demolished. The buildings are owned by Fair Only Realty, whose chief officers are listed variously in city records as Ralph Sherman and Solomon Scheinfeld, both at the same address in Flushing, Queens. They did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The owners put the buildings, which were home to two ground-level stores and 30 apartments, on sale for the third time in five years in December, asking $13.5 million, according to Central City Brokerage, which carried the listing. Before the fire, the asking price had been dropped to $9.25 million. Of the 30 apartments, five were rent-controlled, 23 were rent-stabilized and two were rented at market rate, according to the listing.
“Two of the buildings are in really bad shape,” Ms. Chin said. “There’s no roof; it’s really just a shell, so they’re going to have to tear them down.”
Also damaged in the fire were 281 and 289 Grand Street, fire officials said.
Ms. Chen, who paid $770 a month for a one-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor, said residents had become frustrated with the landlord. “In the winter time, in the coldest days,” she said, “we would have no heat, no hot water.”
Trash also piled up in the basement, she said.
After a number of complaints to 311, the heat would be restored for a few days, then vanish again, she said.
“Excuse after excuse,” she said. “Very frustrating.”
Chris Kui, executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, a neighborhood advocacy group, said his organization had heard complaints about the building where the fire started. “We knew it had a lot of issues,” he said.
On Monday, the group was trying to find shelter for the people who had lost their homes, many of whom were elderly, Mr. Kui said.
Chen Hui, who lived on the third floor of 283 Grand Street, was talking with his wife in China on a Web cam when he realized that he and his parents, who also lived there, had to get out.