House hit with violations before deadly blaze

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The owner of the two-story Ozone Park house where a mother, her two sons and niece died in a three-alarm blaze last week had been cited twice by the city for allowing illegal construction to be performed on the house, Department of Buildings records show.

The city violation forms, which were filed as recently as Feb. 3, show the landlord of 95-17 77th St. had allowed several projects to be completed without proper permits, including the illegal construction of a water and waste line for a bathroom at the cellar level of the house, according to the records.

The other violation form, a quality-of-life complaint, was from 2001 and was not detailed because city inspectors were not granted access to the house, Buildings spokeswoman Ilyse Fink said.

The owner was identified as Caesar Russo of 556 Rathbun Ave. in Staten Island. He could not be reached for comment.

The cause of the Feb. 12 fire was yet to be determined, a FDNY spokesman said, but published reports have indicated a faulty boiler may have sparked the blaze. Fink said a March 25 hearing was still scheduled to address the violation.

"The bottom line is the owner is ultimately responsible for the property," she said. "If there's been illegal work, the owner is responsible and nobody else."

Fire officials said the fire broke out at 3:10 a.m. and also claimed a neighboring house. Officials said strong winds may have helped the fire spread and complicated efforts by the 138 firefighters to put out the blaze, which was brought under control just before 5 a.m.

John Morales was awakened from his sleep when he heard crackling sounds and felt heat coming through his wall, which divided his 95-15 77th St. bedroom from the blaze.

Morales, 19, lived directly next to the two-story, wood-framed house engulfed in flames that killed Nancy Duque Solana, 30, her sons Carel, 5, and Xavier, 10, and her niece Justina, 8. He managed to get his family safely away from the blaze.

Family and friends gathered Tuesday at Quinn Funeral Home in Long Island City for a wake for the four victims.

"When I got out, the house was already completely in flames," said Morales, describing the fire that destroyed the top two floors of the neighboring house and the basement. "I'm pretty much just glad everyone got out of the house."

Morales, a Queens native, said Solana and her family had only been his neighbors for about six months. He said he woke up to hear his family screaming, telling everyone to get out and away from the fire.

Once outside, Morales said, neighbors were unsure if there were people trapped inside either of the two houses. He said everyone waited for the Fire Department to come and put out the fire.

For now, however, Morales is staying in a nearby house with his sister, after having collected a few belongings that were untouched by the fire.

"We plan to rebuild," Morales said of his childhood home.

Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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