Building owners charged in 86th street fire deaths

June 20, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Bensonhurst They didn’t start the fire, but the owners of an 86th Street apartment house in which five people were killed in blaze two years ago are partly responsible for the deaths, according to Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who announced the indictments of the two owners.

Vasilios Gerazounis, 68, and his son, Argyrios Gerazounis, 37, who are the joint owners of 2033 86th St., have been charged with five counts of manslaughter, five counts of reckless endangerment and one count of assault in connection with the deaths of five tenants who were trying to escape an arson fire that ripped through the building on Jan. 30, 2010.

The tenants could not escape the fire because the landlords had set up illegal subdivisions, blocking the tenants’ means of escape in case of a fire, according to the indictment.

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One of the victims, Luisa Chan, died saving her 2-month-old daughter and 2-year-old son. Both the children and her husband survived.

“Although the arsonist is responsible for setting the fire, he does not shoulder the blame alone,” Hynes said. “The landlords share in the responsibility for each of the five deaths and the injuries. They owned, maintained and made money from a building with illegal subdivisions that blocked tenants’ ability to escape in a deadly fire.”

The owners face up to 25 years in prison if they are found guilty.

The suspected arsonist, Daniel Ignacio, a guest of one of the tenants, was arrested shortly after the fire. He was indicted on five counts of second-degree murder and is awaiting trial.

Ignacio was allegedly drunk when he started a fire on the first floor, Hynes said.

The building was on record with the New York City Department of Buildings as containing a one-family unit on each of the second and third floors.

After the fire, it was discovered that the second floor had been illegally converted into use for more than two families, and that the third floor had been illegally converted into use for four families, the indictment stated. Approximately 10 people lived on the second floor, and 10 more lived on the third floor. All of these tenants were Guatemalans living in New York without green cards or visas and working as day laborers or retail clerks, according to the indictment. 

Investigations and hearings conducted by the Buildings Department, the Police Department, the Department of Investigation and the District Attorney’s Rackets Division uncovered multiple violations of building codes, Hynes said.

Building codes require that there be two means of direct egress on the second and third floors, meaning that each tenant must not have to pass through another dwelling to access either egress.

The indictment charges that walls had been set up and doors between rooms had been locked shut or sheet-rocked, blocking all egress.

The investigation found evidence that both defendants had entered all of the rooms on both floors and therefore had knowledge of the illegal apartment layout, Hynes said. They entered the apartments to collect the rent, always in cash, and to check whether any new tenants had been invited to move in because they charged rent by the head, according to the indictment.

“An owner who recklessly exposes residents to illegal and life-threatening conditions will answer in criminal court when lives are lost because of those conditions,” Department of Investigation Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn said.

City Fire Commissioner Salvatore J. Cassano called buildings containing illegal subdivisions “potential deathtraps, created purely for profit, which put the lives of tenants and firefighters needlessly at risk.”

At a hearing, Argyrios Gerazounis, the property manager, testified under oath that he was unaware of any illegal partitions and denied knowing that more than one family lived on each floor. He has been indicted with two additional charges of perjury.    

“The five innocent lives lost in this tragic fire may have been saved if this building had not been illegally converted,” Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri said.

The defendants also owned and operated the adjoining building 2035 86th St. Although it was not affected by the fire, the investigation uncovered that similar illegal subdivisions existed on the same floors, Hynes said.

The Buildings Department issued violations for both buildings. The defendants were found guilty of all violations and were hit with civil fines.

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