Fire marshals are investigating a blaze that killed three men in Elmhurst early Saturday morning, including reports that several men were trapped inside by locked gates.
The fire department believes there were eight people in the house at 90-31 48 Ave., a property that had been illegally subdivided, according to Department of Buildings records.
Two died on the second floor and one was on the third. A body had to be slid out the window onto an FDNY cherrypicker because the staircases were no longer passable after the roof collapsed. One fireman was injured when he fell through the floor.
The New York Post reported that FDNY investigators believe it was an electrical fire.
Gustavo Escubero, a former super of the building, said a new landlord showed up in January and tried to force people out, cutting gas and water. He said most of the tenants left but around 10 stayed.
Escubero lived in a studio apartment on the first floor, while the rest of the space was divided into 10 rooms. When the utilities were turned off, he moved two doors down.
He said one victim probably couldn’t get out because the previous landlord put bars up in front of the sliding doors that led to the second floor balcony.
“The previous landlord, he divided up all the rooms, very very small rooms,” Escubero said. “No windows, very narrow, he broke apartment building rules. The basement and the floors had 10 people on each one.”
The site was hit with more than 20 violations in the last decade. Two years ago, there was a fine for converting the building from a one- to two-family house into one that would accommodate four or more families, DOB records show.
Escubero said one of the men who died lived right next to the window but the previous owner didn’t give him the key to the sliding door.
“They would just sit there and look out the window when they needed fresh air ... I would ask him, doesn’t it give you claustrophobia to not be able to leave and he said yes, of course,” he said. “Someone died because of that window.”
He added, “The situation got bad but the truth is these people just didn’t want to leave.”
Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) said his hearts goes out to the residents of the building.
“It is outrageous that the property owner raked up $217,000 in fines for illegally subdividing most of the property and reportedly ignored a partial vacate order,” he said in a statement. “Elmhurst has been plagued by unscrupulous landlords who habitually flout the law to fatten their wallets.”
Dromm said he will meet with city agencies and colleagues to address the issue.
“I will do all that is in my power to ensure that the property owner is held accountable for his malfeasance,” Dromm said. “Slumlords, you have been put on notice.”
A neighbor, who wouldn’t give a name, said the bank had foreclosed on the property and that it’d been sold to a new owner last January.
City records show the building was sold to an LLC for $1.2 million.