Five lives were lost in the early morning hours on January 30 in a fire allegedly set by the victims’ neighbor. The Brooklyn Ink plans to chronicle the aftermath of this devastating Bensonhurst fire on the people whose lives it touched and the community in which it occurred. This is Part Two.
By Jeannette Neumann
In the hours and days after the deadly Bensonhurst fire, neighbors said they were certain of two things: The fire was a result of arson, and it was the denouement of ongoing Mexican and Guatemalan rivalries that had flared up each weekend as tensions spilled out of closing bars onto the streets, under the shadows of the thundering D train.
Neighbors’ suspicions were right about the arson. But they couldn’t have been more wrong about who had set one of the deadliest fires New York City has seen in years.
And why the arsonist may have done it remains a mystery.
Fire marshals removed the front door of 2033 86th Street from the charred wreckage as a key piece of evidence in their investigation into the three-alarm fire that gutted the three-floor apartment and killed five Guatemalans before dawn on the last Saturday in January. A threat directed at someone on the second floor was scrawled in graffiti across the door. Last Monday, police spokesman Paul J. Browne told the media that detectives believed the fire had been set as a vendetta.
Another clue that it was arson was that the fire began in the stairwell. Fires are most likely to ignite inside apartments, where residents leave candles or place space heaters too close to blankets, for example. “Most fires do not start in a staircase. Right off the bat that was a sign that this was not a normal occurrence, let’s say that,” New York Fire Department spokesman Mike Castellano said.
With the door and stairwell starting point as their clues, detectives’ first step was to determine the possible target among the nine men living on the second floor.
Police say they can’t confirm the message on the door because it is evidence in an ongoing investigation, but residents say the graffiti had been scrawled on the door nearly two months before the fire, and that it was an admonition to “behave,” followed by a curse word singling out the second floor, said Reverend Erick Salgado, the pastor of Jovenes Cristianos Evangelical Church, one of the mainstays of Bensonhurst’s Guatemalan community and, for the past week, a gathering place for those mourning the dead.
So, as they went looking for the arsonist’s target, detectives instead may have found the arsonist.
According to police, Daniel Ignacio, 27, returned home drunk around 2.15 a.m. on Saturday, January 30. For reasons still unknown and still under investigation, Ignacio confessed to soaking a toilet paper roll in paint thinner, police said, lit it, and tossed it into a baby stroller that was always left in the front entryway. Then he went upstairs to the second floor, he told investigators, and went to sleep.
Minutes later, smoke was billowing from the windows. Ignacio escaped onto a Fire Department ladder. He helped lower a neighbor’s two-year-old boy to safety from the third floor. The father, Miguel Chan, would later publicly thank Ignacio for his heroic efforts, while also mourning the death of his wife, Luisa Chan, and praying for a quick recovery for his two-month-old daughter Maria, who fractured her skull after he had been forced to toss her out a window, strapped in a child seat.
Now, Chan says only God can forgive Ignacio for the tragedy he has brought upon his former neighbors.
Ignacio lived a floor below Chan at 2033 86th Street for several months. He shared a large room with five other Guatemalan immigrants. Three other men, also Guatemalans, shared an adjacent room.
The Chans, who lived on the third floor, always left baby Maria’s stroller in the front hallway. Rev. Salgado, searching for a possible motivation, says maybe that frustrated Ignacio.
“I believe his intention was to burn the stroller,” Rev. Salgado said. “But he was so drunk that he didn’t realize that burning the stroller would incinerate the whole house.”
Investigators from the Fire Department and the Department of Buildings are also looking into the possibility that floors in the building may have been illegally subdivided. The Department of Buildings received a complaint in November but an inspection in January revealed no illegal subdivides. The building’s owner, Vasilios Gerazounis, did not immediately return a phone call to his office.
Gerazounis was cited on February 4 and ordered to appear before the Environmental Control Board court in March for illegal subdivisions in the neighboring building, 2035 86th Street, said Department of Buildings spokeswoman Carly Sullivan. Department engineers and inspectors evacuated all residents and were examining the building for structural damage from the fire when they stumbled across the patchwork of small apartments, she said.
Sullivan and FDNY spokesman Castellano said the heavy fire damage in Ignacio’s building at 2033 86th Street will make an investigation into possible illegally divided apartments difficult.
Ignacio was arrested on Tuesday, February 2 on charges of second-degree murder and arson. Rev. Salgado said Ignacio implored detectives to tell the pastor to share his message of innocence with the congregation and victims’ families.
“They rejected it,” Rev. Salgado said. Ignacio set fire to the stroller—that was intention enough for many of his parishioners, he said.
During an interview with local media on Saturday from the Bellevue Hospital prison ward where he is being held without bail, Ignacio admitted that he started the fire, but swears it wasn’t on purpose. He disputed police reports that he started the fire by drenching a toilet paper roll in paint thinner and then lighting it on fire; he says the blaze ignited after he tossed a cigarette butt onto the floor of his building’s front hallway and went upstairs to sleep.
“It must have been the devil that possessed me to do it. It couldn’t have been Jesus Christ,” Ignacio said, according to New York Daily News.
Ignacio said in the interview that he drank multiple bottles of vodka the night of the fire with a few friends and returned home in a stupor.
Ignacio has been in trouble with the law before. He was deported to Guatemala in 2003 after he served 10 months on a felony charge; he was caught fleeing a woman’s apartment with her wallet, pink plastic comb and purple pen, according to The Associated Press. He is believed to have illegally re-entered the country at some point last year.
Many people in the neighborhood say they are horrified that one of their own—a fellow Guatemalan—could bring such destruction upon his own community. The fire displaced 28 adults and seven children, including people from the neighboring building. Like Ignacio, most are Guatemalans and day laborers, struggling to scrape together a few hours of work on a construction site or as a plumber amid the country’s worst unemployment rate in a generation.
One of those day laborers is 29-year-old Mario Morales, Ignacio’s roommate. Their apartment was divided into a larger room where six men slept, including Ignacio, and a smaller room, where Morales and two other men slept. Many of them had been without steady work for months, says Morales, and could only pay rent by dividing it among more people.
Ignacio used to go out drinking in the neighborhood, says Morales, but he had pulled back in the past two months when he couldn’t find any work. He says he didn’t know Ignacio very well despite living together for several months; most of the men were out all day seeking work and, arriving home exhausted, would go almost immediately to bed, leaving little time for camaraderie.
Marcelino Ajpacaja, 33, moved into the three-person room just two days before the deadly fire. The room would have cost him $175 a month. Even that might have been a struggle to pay—he says he hasn’t found steady work since he moved to Brooklyn from Guatemala five months ago. Ajpacaja never spoke to Ignacio, he says, but remembers seeing him speak amicably with another roommate around 8 p.m. the night of the fire.
Ajpacaja and Morales are staying at friends’ apartments nearby after sleeping for several days in Rev. Salgado’s church less than a mile away. Chan and Luisa were the most regular devotees of the church from the building; they went with their two children to nearly every two-hour service, Chan said, held each day except Thursday. Rev. Salgado opened the church doors to all residents displaced by the fire, telling them to seek strength in their Guatemalan brothers and sisters. The 300-member congregation prepared meals to feed the victims of the fire and organized a donation drive in the neighborhood with signs in English and Spanish.
But their sense of community only extends so far: Daniel Ignacio is not part of their community and never was, they say.
Two white pillars the size of Aspen tree trunks mark the middle of the room where the congregation gathers to sing songs of praise to Jesus and listen to impassioned sermons in Spanish. In the week since the fire, the Evangelical service has been dedicated to the memory of the dead: Five framed photos and five flower bouquets were placed on the altar.
On Friday, Chan’s two-year-old son Josias Chan pulled his father eagerly down the aisle, as members of the congregation stood up and whispered “Que Dios te bendiga” – “God bless you.”
Rev. Salgado asked Chan to speak briefly to the congregation.
“If God gave us another opportunity, it’s because he has something in mind for us,” Chan said of the survivors, as he held Josias, who kept reaching for the microphone. “It stirs my heart and soul that you are all here with me in this House of God,” he told the congregation.
Before Rev. Salgado founded the Jovenes Cristianos Evangelical Church more than a decade ago, he says some of the neighborhood’s Guatemalans were floundering. Many turned to drinking to ease the pain of a homeland and loved ones left behind. The church has provided stability for many, he says, and brings with it a sense of accountability to their community.
“The church is a place where people hear about the fundamental values of life, family and God, which means we are always aware that we will be held accountable for our behavior,” Rev. Salgado said.
Santos Emilio, pushing open the glass doors to get a quick breath of crisp February air during Friday’s service, said he feels lucky he joined the church five years ago. That put a halt to a two-year drinking binge, he says.
Emilio, 26, says he never met Ignacio, but he knows men just like him: They never found the church and spend more time drinking than praying.
“I’m glad they got him because he has to pay for the crime he committed,” Emilio said.
Chan says he often asked Ignacio to come to church with him. “Let’s go seek out God, I would tell him,” Chan said. Ignacio would always reply, “We’ll see, we’ll see,” Chan said.
Rev. Salgado says he believes Ignacio was in the church once for a wedding but that he never returned for services.
“He was so close to being saved,” Rev. Salgado said. “Everybody has an opportunity to be saved and if you reject it you end up like you end up.”