Woodside fire kills one man, injures four

Len Zaragoza (r.), daughter of one of the people injured in the blaze, speaks with Doreen O'Leary, who lives in a nearby apartment building. Photo by Christina Santucci
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A deadly, two-alarm fire in Woodside raged for nearly three hours early Friday morning, leaving one dead, four injured and neighbors turning to each other in search of ways to cope with the tragedy after the smoke had cleared.

Flames engulfed the two-story house, at 40-38 61st St., some time around 1 a.m., and it took 25 units and 106 firefighters to bring the inferno under control just before 4 a.m., the FDNY said.

One unidentified dead person was pulled from the building, two people were taken to Elmhurst Hospital, one 54-year-old man was taken to Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan and one victim, later identified as 63-year-old Rosenda Zaragoza, was transported to Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, according to the Fire Department.

One firefighter was treated for minor injuries and authorities were investigating the cause of the fire.

The buildings on either side were vacated due to damage suffered, and neighbors said a number of Filipino renters lived in the house. In November 2010, a caller filed a complaint saying there were 17 people living in the converted home, according to the city Department of Building’s website.

Neighbors said they heard a loud explosion that shook the foundations of their homes as they slept before the house went up in flames.

Soon after, the neighborhood was dotted with fliers reading, “Join us for a time of silence, prayer and reflection for the person killed, those injured and those that lost so much in the tragic fire early Friday morning.”

Daniel Gilland, who said he and his wife moved into their home a few doors down from the fire a couple of weeks ago, said he invited neighbors of all faiths to gather and pray together in an attempt to begin the process of healing their community.

“I come from the Christian tradition,” Gilland, the executive pastor at Grace Church on the Upper West Side, said to the two or three dozen who had assembled across the street from the building’s charred frame Saturday afternoon. “I believe God can take something bad and make good.”

During a brief ceremony, Gilland led a prayer.

“I’ll use the word ‘God’ — take that as you will,” he said, and then prayed for the person who was killed, those who were injured and for the community’s quick recovery from the destructive blaze. “Through one man’s death, teach us how to live life to its fullest.”

Len Zaragoza, the daughter of the injured woman Zaragoza, arrived with her husband, Jerome Bagay, at the burnt-out shell of a building that used to be her father’s home after the prayer ceremony.

She said she had only learned of the fire Saturday morning when her father called her from the hospital. He told her he woke up to find his first-floor apartment filled with smoke and passed out, and the next thing he remembered was waking up in the hospital. Len said her father, who was not seriously injured, lived with a man who uses an oxygen tank, and she believed it exploded, causing the fire.

Her father told her he needed clothes and his cell phone, so she went to his home to see if anything could be salvaged, and was shocked by the condition of the building once she saw it.

“I didn’t know it was so bad,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes.

Doreen O’Leary, who lives in a nearby apartment building, had already been making plans with her neighbors before Zaragoza arrived to collect clothing items for the fire’s victims.

“Tell your father we’re here to help him,” she said.

City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) said in a phone interview Monday that it was one of the worst fires he had ever seen.

“We’ll be organizing a clothing drive to continue to support the families in any way possible,” he said.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Updated 11:59 pm, December 13, 2011
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