Whitestone center shops reopen after massive fire

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More than three weeks after a fire gutted a large portion of the Whitestone Shopping Center, there are some signs that life is getting back to normal.

Four of the seven businesses damaged by the two−alarm fire Nov. 2 are once again operating in some capacity at the shopping center, located on the Cross Island Parkway service road near Clintonville Road in Whitestone.

An Astoria Federal Savings bank and a Chase bank — located the farthest from where the fire began — have been open for business since days after the fire while minor damage to the exterior of the banks is repaired.

Big block letters line a sign on King Chef’s, a popular Chinese restaurant, that reads “Thank God we are open for business again.”

“I’m glad they’re back,” said Jake Valente, who works nearby. “I eat here like twice a week.”

A General Nutrition Center located next door is also open for business, although large plywood planks still cover the store’s windows, broken as firefighters struggled to contain the fast−moving fire that started at local landmark the Lollipops Diner.

Authorities have accused 42−year−old Michael Trantel of starting the fire after he broke into the popular eatery to steal cigarettes and a lighter. Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said Trantel allegedly set a bag of Halloween candy on fire before leaving the diner, igniting the blaze that quickly spread to other businesses through a wooden awning that lines the shopping center.

Lollipops Diner and Imperial Liquor — completely destroyed by the blaze — remain boarded up, plastered with signs assuring regular customers that the owners are remodeling and plan to be back in business as soon as possible.

Lollipops regulars shopping in the area Friday were still dismayed about the loss of their favorite eatery.

“Today would be the perfect day for a warm cup of soup,” said Thomas Daagler. “That’s what I’d do when I needed to do some shopping. I’d get what I needed, then stop in for a bite to eat. It’s such a shame. I’m glad they caught someone. He deserves to be locked away for this. He destroyed people’s lives.”

Trantel was arrested a week after the fire at his 15−29 159th St. home and was subsequently arraigned on charges of arson, reckless endangerment, criminal mischief, burglary and larceny at Queens Criminal Court in Kew Gardens.

He faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted, Brown said.

“For a crime so often noted as victimless, this is a perfect example of how wrong that is. Just ask the affected shop owners,” said Delano Reid, acting special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, New York Field Division, following Trantel’s arrest.

The DA said surveillance video from the night of the fire allegedly shows Trantel asking a security guard for a cigarette. The guard declined, according to Brown, and the video allegedly then shows Trantel breaking into the diner.

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e−mail at or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 138.

Updated 6:40 pm, October 10, 2011
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