Site of Fatal Fire Was a Boarding House, Fire Officials Say

A Brooklyn row house where two men died in a fire on Friday night was an improvised boarding house, fire officials said.

The officials added that that the three-story, nine-room building, on Covert Street near Broadway in the Bushwick section, did not appear to have a certificate of occupancy that would allow it to be used as a single-room-occupancy residence.

The fire started on the second floor when someone cooking with a hotplate accidentally set fire to a bed, the officials said. “Occupants then made an effort to extinguish the flames,” said James Long, a Fire Department spokesman. “They used a bedspread and curtains.”

When their efforts were unsuccessful, Mr. Long said, the occupants fled, leaving the bedroom door open, and allowing the fire to spread into a hallway and travel upward. Two men on the third floor were trapped by the smoke and flames, Mr. Long said. One man either jumped or fell from a window and died. The second man was found dead at the top of a staircase.

Tony Sclafani, a spokesman for the city Buildings Department, said that the agency had received three complaints in the past year that the building contained illegally converted apartments. “Inspectors visited the location six times in the last year but were denied access each time,” he said.

City Council leaders including the speaker, Christine C. Quinn, issued a statement on Saturday, saying that the Council planned to hold a hearing in June to explore ways to make it easier for inspectors to get into buildings where illegal conversions were suspected.

“Last night’s horrific deaths come on the heels of three other deaths in the Bronx less than a month ago,” the statement said. “We cannot stand by and must take action to address illegal subdivisions before we witness another tragedy take place.”

One of the residents of the row house, Willie C. Bell, said on Saturday that the building was owned by a woman who had moved to North Carolina and left him as a caretaker. Mr. Bell, 60, a retired roofer, said that he paid utility bills and safeguarded the building in lieu of rent.
About three years ago, Mr. Bell said, he invited several other men to move in with him but did not know how many people, in total, were living there at the time of the fire.

Some of those who lived in the house were well known in the neighborhood and often sat outside in warm weather, chatting with passersby. Neighbors identified the dead men as Frank Edwards and Gregory Atkinson, also known as Jiggs.

Mr. Bell said that Mr. Atkinson had been married to Mr. Bell’s sister Ruby Davis, with whom he had two sons. As he rushed from the burning building, he said he passed Mr. Atkinson’s body, lying on the ground below the building’s windows.

“I just kept going,” Mr. Bell said. “The flames were coming out high.”
On Saturday afternoon, fire marshals walked in and out of the gutted row house. The top of the building’s facade was scorched black, and charred joists could be glimpsed inside. A jumble of debris filled a front courtyard: sections of tin ceiling, fluffy yellow tufts of insulation, pairs of sodden jeans.

Friends and neighbors stopped by, writing messages on a piece of cardboard and leaving bouquets and cans of beer in tribute. Some consoled Mr. Bell. One man blamed him for the deaths and quickly stormed off.

Rafael Marty, 35, placed a pint of vodka on the sidewalk along with a tall blue candle in a glass sleeve bearing an illustration of the Virgin Mary. He twisted a napkin into a taper and used it to light the candle.
“He was a good guy,” Mr. Marty said of Mr. Atkinson. “He was friendly to everybody.”

Mr. Bell stood nearby. He said he regretted the deaths but did not feel responsible.

“I was just trying to help people,” he said. “That’s all I wanted to do.”

Al Baker contributed reporting.

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