BY KELLY MARIE MANCUSO
Last week’s arson fire in Woodhaven that gutted eight attached homes dominated the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association (WRBA) meeting on Saturday, as civic members looked to help displaced families get back on their feet.
One of the victims displaced in the March 18 fire on 90th Street spoke at Saturday’s WRBA meeting. Jhadran Rojas and his wife Patricia were tenants in one of the neighboring homes destroyed by the fire. In addition to losing their home and possessions, the Rojas’ grief was compounded by the fact that their apartment was looted twice in one day. Thieves made off with the Rojas’ electronics and remaining valuables not lost in the blaze.
According to Deputy Inspector Deodat Urprasad, the new commanding officer of the 102nd Precinct, the precinct received numerous complaints over the years regarding drug use at the location where the fire started. Urprasad revealed that the alleged arsonist — identified as Luis Lopez — was arrested on March 15 on an unrelated charge, three days prior to setting the blaze. In addition, Urprasad said that officers at the precinct told him that numerous summonses for drug use have been issued at the location in the past.
“We have a special narcotics module in the 102 that handles these types of assignments,” Urprasad said. “They’re doing various search warrants. You may not see it, but they are effective.”
WRBA President Martin Colberg asked residents to remain vigilant and share information regarding ongoing complaints with each other and the board: “We have to pass information on to the 102 and make sure that we’re following up with these locations that we think are issues. We have to make sure to stay on top of it and that things don’t escalate.”
City Councilman Eric Ulrich thanked the WRBA for helping to coordinate the relief effort for the families displaced by the fire. He also thanked the first responders whose efforts prevented a larger tragedy and loss of life: “We really have the best of the best and we owe them a debt of gratitude.”
Ulrich was on the scene during the fire and helped the Red Cross relocate tenants displaced by the blaze to P.S. 210. He also opened his office to relief workers so they could access the Internet, register the victims and obtain vouchers for local hotels.
According to Ulrich, the Buildings Department and FDNY marshals entered the homes the day following the blaze and found numerous housing code violations. A total of six buildings violations were issued for illegal conversions. A representative from Ulrich’s office reportedly saw remnants of about seven bunk beds in one basement.
“That’s a fire trap,” Ulrich said. “Those people should be criminally prosecuted for putting people’s lives in danger. We have fire codes for a reason. People’s lives come first.”
Ulrich called for stiffer penalties and crackdowns on illegal conversions.
“It should not take a tragedy like what happened here in Woodhaven for the city to wake up and realize that however they’re doing it now is not working,” he said. “We need to be more proactive and less reactive.”
Both Ulrich and Assemblyman Mike Miller have partnered with Catholic Charities to create a special fund where tax-deductible donations can be made for the Woodhaven Fire Victims. The funds will go toward purchasing furniture and gift cards to Pathmark and Target. In addition, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty agreed to pay tenants’ first month’s rent if they decide to relocate within Woodhaven.
WRBA members also collected bags of clothing and supplies for the victims at Saturday’s meeting. The donations were large enough to fill up two commercial vans.