The cause of the fire in the first floor apartment at 1591 East 172nd Street remained unknown about two hours after firefighters from the Engine 96, Ladder 54 put out the blaze. A fire department official said it may have been caused by maintenance error.
“It appears the crew was using a torch to remove the tile from the floor,” said fire chief Raymond M. Stanton. “We had to open walls and put water in two apartments.”
An hour before the apartment caught fire, three men were seen removing the flooring in one of the apartments using a torch with a flame-spreader nozzle. In the basement, the building superintendent, who gave his name only as Allan, was working on fixing the boiler, which, according to the residents had been out for a week.
At around noon on Monday, Evelyn Dejesus, 49, noticed a small amount of smoke coming out of the apartment that was being repaired by the crew. Dejesus, a 13-year resident living on the second floor, said she alerted the two men, who assured her several times they had everything under control. “They told me it was only a few towels burning,” said Dejesus smoking a cigarette frenetically, standing on a pool of water in the first floor landing.
The resident then witnessed the workers’ attempt to stop the smoke by throwing small buckets of water on the fire.
Moments later, the smoke had blackened the hallways on the first and second floors. That’s when Dejesus decided to call the fire department. “I knew the workers were doing something wrong,” she said pointing out at the negligence of the maintenance team that had left the building by the time the firefighters arrived on site.
In September 2011, Anthony Gazivoda, the powerful Albanian real estate developer acquired the Soundview apartment complex which according to New York City’s Department of Buildings’ website, has 11 open violations mainly for boiler malfunction. The workers told reporters two hours before the fire that they had been hired by Gazivoda to renovate the building.
After the firefighters left, three men representing Gazivoda arrived at the building to talk to the tenants and assess the damages. All refused to identify themselves. When asked who the workmen were, one man said: “We don’t know, we’re trying to figure it out just like you.”
One of the three Gazivoda representatives said the workers were not licensed. The man answered to the name Henrik but refused to give his full name to the BronxInk reporters. One of the two brothers who own Gazivoda Realty Co Inc, is named Henrik Gazivoda. A number of tenants angry at the damage caused by the fire, complained to the representative and identified him several times as the owner of the building.
Edward Maldonado, who has lived in another apartment on the first floor for 10 years, said he believed the workers were questionable. “They take workers off the books,” said Maldonado, as he moved his sofa out of the living room, left in ruins by the firemen. “I’m going to be waiting, gentlemen,” he shouted as the three representatives were leaving the building, promising they would be back in the morning.
Dozens of tenants were affected by the fire that started in between the walls of the buildings, which meant firefighters had to demolish sections of the walls and ceilings of six apartments around and above the epicenter of the fire.
Residents said they were worried about the coming nights. “Both my children are asthmatic, my door locks are broken, I can’t find my cat,” said Zoerain Siugzda, a resident living on the second floor. “Tell me what I am supposed to do.”