The New York Times Reports On Landlord's/Tenants' Indictments. . .
March 30, 2006
3 Indicted in Deaths of 2 Firefighters Who Jumped
By Andrew Jacobs
The former owner of a Bronx building and two of his tenants have been indicted in the deaths of two firefighters whose efforts to battle a blaze in the building last year were hampered by a warren of illegally constructed rooms and walls, the authorities said.
On Jan. 23, 2005, Lt. Curtis Meyran and Firefighter John G. Bellew leaped to their deaths from a fourth-floor window of the building at 236 East 178th Street when they could not find the fire escape. Four other firefighters were critically injured that morning when they, too, had to jump from the apartment in an attempt to flee the searing heat and smoke. Investigators determined that the fire was sparked by an overloaded extension cord that powered the illegally built rooms.
The deaths prompted an internal investigation by the Fire Department and led to a new policy that gives firefighters safety ropes they can use to rappel from buildings. In a report issued in September, investigators said that frozen hydrants, nonfunctioning hoses and poor communication among those battling the fire might have contributed to the deaths and injuries.
But yesterday, in unsealing an indictment against one of the tenants, the Bronx district attorney, Robert T. Johnson, focused on plasterboard partition walls in two apartments that investigators say blocked firefighters' access to the fire escape and forced the six men to jump. Investigators also determined that the jerry-built rooms helped accelerate the spread of the fire throughout the five-story building.
"We all know that firefighting is dangerous enough, but it should not be made more dangerous when people, motivated by greed, illegally carve up apartments and share extension cords," Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said. "This kind of indictment sends an important message out to tenants and landlords across the city."
On Tuesday, law enforcement officials arrested Rafael Castillo, a 55-year-old cabdriver, and charged him with two counts of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment. They said that Mr. Castillo, who lived with his family in the third-floor apartment where the fire started, had added two bedrooms to his three-bedroom rental apartment, and rented them out. Mr. Castillo, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, faces up to 15 years in prison.
The fire spread to the fourth-floor apartment of Caridad Coste, who the authorities said had paid a worker to build extra rooms. The firefighters jumped from her apartment. Officials said they were coordinating the surrender today of Ms. Coste, 55, and the building's former owner, Cesar Rios, 49, who the authorities say was aware of the illegal construction.
Neither Ms. Coste nor Mr. Rios could be reached for comment yesterday.
Mr. Rios sold the building in 2003. A limited liability corporation that now owns the building has also been indicted. A woman listed in state records as the contact for the corporation, Lesley O'Hara, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Samuel M. Braverman, a court-appointed lawyer who is representing Mr. Castillo, said he believed the charges against his client were overly harsh. "To charge him with such crimes seems to me in many ways to be an enormous stretch," Mr. Braverman said. "If these firemen had ropes, my client would not be in jail right now."
He said that Mr. Castillo, who supports three children and currently lives in a single-room-occupancy hotel, would be unable to make the $250,000 bail that was set yesterday by Judge Harold Adler.
Law enforcement officials and housing experts said they could not recall a similar case in which tenants who made unsanctioned alterations to their apartments were charged in the death of others. Capt. Peter L. Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, said he hoped the charges would persuade people that making unauthorized changes to private homes and apartment buildings could have deadly consequences.
"People think that violating building codes is no big deal, but it can lead to the loss of life," Captain Gorman said. "It's like driving while under the influence: if you make it home safely, fine, but if you kill three people on the way, that's a different matter."
Frank Ricci, the director of government affairs for the Rent Stabilization Association, said that landlords were often powerless to stop tenants from making changes to their apartments. Even when a building owner takes a tenant to court, housing court judges can only order the restoration of the apartment to its original condition.
Some residents in the East Tremont section of the Bronx, where the fire occurred, expressed sympathy for Mr. Castillo, saying he was only doing what so many struggling immigrants do to make their lives a bit easier. "As long as there are immigrants and rents are as high as they are, people will chop up apartments," said George Medero, who lives next door to the burned building. "This is a fact of life in New York City."
Matthew Sweeney contributed reporting for this article.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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