Queens fire ignited by contractor's illegal use of blowtorch in vacant apartment: FDNY

ByEyewitness News WABC logo
Friday, December 22, 2023
Nearly 200 residents displaced before Christmas after Queens fire
Johny Fernandez has the latest on the investigation into the fire.

SUNNYSIDE, Queens (WABC) -- Fire officials have deemed the illegal use of a blowtorch to be what caused the massive fire at a Queens apartment building.

As the FDNY's investigation gets underway, dozens of families are without a home right before Christmas.

The five-alarm fire burned through the 6-story building located at 43-09 47th Avenue at around noon Wednesday.

According to FDNY Fire Marshals, a contractor was using a torch to heat lead paint off a metal closet door frame in a vacant apartment.

The FDNY has enforcement powers in this case and its Bureau of Fire Protection will be issuing three criminal summonses to the owner of the contracting company.

"They were authorized to do some work in the building but not that work," FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanugh said.

The worker noticed smoke coming from the door frame and the flames spread from there.

"They thought the fire had been put out. And it wasn't until it got bad-and people actually started smelling the smoke and called-that we arrived and the fire was significantly advanced upon our arrival," Kavanugh said.

Firefighters encountered flames pouring out of the windows, as long-time residents stood on the sidewalk and watched New York's bravest attack the flames from numerous tower ladders.

The flames were spotted on the 6th floor and into the cockloft of the six-story building. More than 130 firefighters responded to the scene.

On Thursday, more than 24 hours after the fire was out, hundreds of residents were still unable to retrieve their belongings. In some cases, unable to evacuate their pets.

"No one is allowed to go in today for retrieval at all because the ceilings are still falling through from the water damage and it's not structurally sound," Queens city council member, Julie Won, said.

No one was seriously injured. But the sheer volume of water damaged most if not all of the apartments on the lower floors.

The Department of Buildings has issued a full vacate order for the entire building.

They say work must be completed before any residents can reoccupy the apartments.

The work includes: installation of a temporary roof on top of the building, emergency shoring on the interior of the building and other permanent repairs. It's not clear how long it will take for that work to be completed.

In the meantime, the Red Cross is providing shelter to families. So far, 97 have registered, amounting to more than 200 people.

"The Red Cross typically provides emergency services which are for the first 24 to 72 hours after a disaster. In this case, given the proximity to the weekend of the holiday, we may be able to go a little longer than that," Frederic Klein of the American Red Cross said.

Kathleen Kim and Brian Witte are two of the many people displaced from their homes right before Christmas.

"I just finished wrapping a mountain of Christmas presents and I have an eight year-old just wondering what's going to happen on Christmas, so. And I'm sure all these other families are in the same position," Kim said.

The community has also been helping those devastated families. A neighborhood veterinarian was quick to provide emergency care to a cat who survived a six-story jump from the burning building.

At the local state assembly member's office, personal care items and socks are available for those who had to leave everything behind.

"Toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner. All things that are essentials," New York State Assembly member Juan Ardila said. "Right now we also want to push for hot meals for the families and hopefully we can get their stay extended throughout the holidays."

Their best hope is with a fundraiser organized by Sunnyside Community Services.

"That goes directly to the families, 100%," Ardila said.

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