Today’s news:

50-year-old dies as fire rips through home

An early morning blaze killed a middle-aged Howard Beach man Sunday despite two neighbors’ attempts to save him from his second-story residence, which was already consumed in fire and smoke by the time they arrived.

Christopher Acer, 50, died inside his childhood home in a fire officials said started in his rear bedroom. Neighbors said they were told by rescue personnel that Acer’s body was found in his bed, badly burned by the rapidly moving fire.

Robert Gregg, 28, a tenant who lives with his mother on the ground floor, said he ran upstairs to rescue Acer but could not step beyond the threshold because it was already engulfed in fire.

“By the time I got upstairs, everything was all covered in smoke and flames,” Gregg said. “I couldn’t even get anywhere near him.”

Firefighters brought the one-alarm blaze under control around 4 a.m., about 45 minutes after receiving the emergency call.

The cause of the fire was still under investigation, said FDNY spokesman Firefighter James Spollen. The medical examiner had not yet identified the body by Monday afternoon, spokeswoman Ellen Borakov said.

Acer inherited the two-story home at 99-60 163rd Drive after his mother’s death three years ago, according to Gregg, who has lived in the house’s first-floor apartment for five years.

“He’s been a sweetheart his whole life,” Gregg said of Acer, who had worked for American Airlines loading cargo until he was laid off in October. “This man was too good — way too good.”

Gregg said he had awakened in the middle of the night noticing something that smelled “like burnt toast,” but then fell back asleep when a search of the house turned up nothing.

Within 20 minutes he reawoke to a popping sound in the walls and realized the house had caught fire, at which point he roused his mother, who is disabled with a hip condition.

But his efforts to rescue Acer were thwarted by the fire, which had already consumed the second floor.

Bruce Stock, 45, a neighbor who lives directly behind the burned house, said he tried to go into the house after Gregg had given up but retreated when firefighters arrived, minutes after both Stock and Gregg had placed calls to 911.

“All I saw was the heavy smoke through the length of the house,” Stock recalled. “Thank God I heard the siren, because that’s what prevented me from going further into the house.”

Although Acer’s living quarters were completely gutted, the fire hardly touched Gregg’s first-floor apartment, which was damaged only by water and the firefighters’ efforts to put out the blaze.

“The upstairs, it’s gone,” Gregg said. “There’s just nothing up there.”

Acer’s bedroom jutted out the back of the house on a set of stilts, meaning the burning embers fell onto the patio below instead of into the downstairs apartment, which may have saved the bottom half of the house.

The blue house sits on a narrow dead-street street hardly wide enough for two cars to pass one other, only a few houses away from the Hawtree Basin, a docked-lined sluice of water that feeds into Jamaica Bay. John F. Kennedy International Airport sits a block in the other direction.

Early Sunday evening, the faint smell of burnt wood still permeated the air around Acer’s house, where the broken second-story windows exposed the charred remnants of the interior. The blackened springs of his mattress and smoked wood of his bed frame had been set on the grass by firefighters. A two-foot-tall heap of ash sat on the patio beneath a small hole in the floor of Acer’s bedroom, and the sound of water dripping to the ground was still audible.

“I’m just in shock,” Gregg said before walking back into the apartment Sunday evening and trying to clean up. “It hasn’t really hit me yet.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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