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Gianaris asks for investigation of fire in Astoria house

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"I urge the district attorney to investigate the renting of illegal living space and prosecute offenders who show no respect for residential laws," Assemblyman Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) said last week.

The Dec. 14 fire killed 37-year-old Rebecca Lynn Harden - the ex-wife of actress Marcia Gay Harden's brother Thaddeus - her 6-year-old son Sander and her 10-year-old daughter Audrey.

Following the blaze, the house, located at 19-18 21st Rd., was cited by the city's Buildings Department for two illegal basement apartments and the improper conversion of the attic space for residential use.

A city Buildings Department spokeswoman said that none of the violations appeared to be directly related to the cause of the fire, which the Fire Department identified as candles.

Gianaris said he was concerned specifically about the illegal conversion of the attic, where the fire appeared to have started. But he was not certain if the attic had been converted by the apartment's occupants or by the buildings owner, whom Buildings Department records identified as Demetrlos Daviotis.

Buildings Department spokeswoman Ilyse Fink said the attic conversion was cited only because it had been carried out without a permit. She could not say whether it also violated safety codes.

Fink added that the addition of the basement apartments might have triggered a city requirement for a second means of egress or a sprinkler. But she said further investigation was required to determine when those apartments were converted, since the sprinkler and second means of egress requirements have been added to the housing code in recent years.

The assemblyman said he had already discussed the matter with the office of Queens DA Richard Brown and was confident prosecutors would investigate thoroughly and determine who, if anyone, should face charges.

A spokeswoman for Brown said the matter was under consideration.

Attempts to reach Daviotis were unsuccessful. He was due to appear before the Environmental Control Board in Jamaica Feb. 3 for a hearing on the violations.

A total of 12 units and some 60 firefighters arrived at the scene at about 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 14, after Rebecca Harden ran down to the first floor and alerted her downstairs neighbors, Loughran said. Harden then ran back into the house where she may have become trapped with her children.

The boy was found with his mother in a bathroom on the upper level of a duplex apartment that spanned the second and attic floors of the house. He was pronounced dead of smoke inhalation almost immediately at Mount Sinai Hospital Queens.

The girl, who was found by firefighters a short distance away from her brother and mother on the upper level of the duplex, had burns on more than 60 percent of her body, Fire Department spokesman Mike Loughran said.

The mother and daughter died two days later, also from the effects of smoke inhalation, the Medical Examiner's office said.

One neighbor, a real estate agent who identified himself only as Tom, said he was still in shock and trying to accept what had happened.

"It was a real inferno up on the upper floors, to the rear," he said. "They were like sitting ducks."

Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

Updated 10:25 am, October 12, 2011
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