The deadly blaze broke out at 5:30 a.m. Saturday on 48th Avenue in Elmhurst.
Two bodies were recovered on the second floor and one on the third floor. and four people, including two firefighters, were injured.
One of the firefighters fell through a first floor into the basement and is expected to recover, and the FDNY says two men were able evacuate the home before the fire spread.
They were taken to Elmhurst Hospital for smoke inhalation and evaluation.
In addition to the accelerant, sources told Eyewitness News that recovered video captured a man entering the building before the fire and walking out before the blaze erupted.
"When I opened the door, I saw the flames and the people running," neighbor Irena lino said in Spanish. "I was scared, but at the same time, I saw they were in pajamas and barefoot in the freezing cold."
lino lives three doors away and says she heard the desperate cries of those who managed to escape.
"A girl was screaming to save her father, that her father was inside, and she tried to go back inside," lino said. "But her neighbors wouldn't let her because the flames were so intense."
Another neighbor said the home was occupied by squatters. According to the New York City Department of Buildings, there were complaints earlier this year and in 2019 of dozens of people living inside the home.
"Due to the large volume of fire, we had an extensive collapse of the roof into the top floor and another part collapsed on the second floor," one firefighter said.
Queens Borough President Donovan Richards commented on the deadly fire via Twitter.
Our thoughts are with the families of those who lost their lives in this morning's tragic fire in #Elmhurst, as well as with the heroic @FDNY first responders who were hurt putting their lives on the line. Our office is monitoring the situation.https://t.co/4rpj1ybPWb— Queens Borough President Donovan Richards (@QnsBPRichards) December 19, 2020
During their investigation, officials found a partial vacate for the cellar where the DOB previously found the illegal single-room occupancy units.
"Illegal conversions pose a severe fire hazard to not only building occupants, but neighbors and first responders as well, which is why we previously issued a Vacate Order for the cellar of this building and issued punitive violations to the landlord," the department said in a statement. "Our inspectors remain on scene, conducting a full investigation into this tragic fire."
Previously, in February 2018, DOB issued a Vacate Order for the cellar of the home, after their inspectors found six illegally converted SRO units. The Vacate Order was still in effect at the time of the fire.
Since this time, DOB has issued multiple follow up violations to the building owner for failure to correct the violating conditions found during the February 2018 inspection. The violations have led to over $217,000 in associated penalties.
Department inspectors were most recently on scene at the house to conduct an inspection on 5/13/20. During this inspection, officials say they issued a violation to the property owner after observing that the front yard had been fully paved over, contrary to zoning regulations for the property.
"Since that time, we have not received any complaints at the building," the DOB said.
Investigators said the fire had caused severe damage, including a collapse of the roof and heavy damage to the staircases inside of the building. Neighboring buildings were also damaged in the fire and structural stability inspections on all three buildings are ongoing.
"This investigation is still in the early stages and active," an FDNY spokesman said.
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