Fire tore through a row of apartment buildings in Hempstead Saturday morning, killing an 8-year-old boy and injuring 16 people, fire officials said.
The fire forced more than 250 residents from five adjoining apartment buildings, many still in their pajamas, out of their homes and into the icy, snow-covered streets before sunrise.
The boy was found inside a one-bedroom, third-floor apartment at 17 St. Pauls Rd. North, where the fire started, Hempstead Fire Department Chief Scott Clark said. Four other residents of the apartment escaped — two children climbed down a rope, one woman fell from the rope while climbing down and another woman leaped out a window, officials said.
How the boy died was not clear. The Nassau County Police Department was investigating. The boy was not immediately identified by police.
"We don't know if he couldn't get out or if he was sleeping," Clark said.
Saul Argueta, 40, who lives next door to the apartment where the fire started, said he tried to help the family escape but could not reach them because of the smoke.
Argueta said he knew the boy who died as Fernandito and his mother, who is in the hospital, as Lupe. The third-grader at the Fulton School used to play with his 8-year-old daughter in the building's hallways, Argueta said. "He was a normal kid," Argueta said. "He liked to play."
Argueta, whose apartment was destroyed by the blaze, said he smelled smoke, warned his wife and two kids and got out down the fire escape.
"Everything is destroyed," said Argueta, who has lived in the building for two years. "We couldn't take out anything."
James Hickman, a division supervisor with the Nassau Fire Marshall's Office, said the cause of the fire is undetermined, but is not deemed suspicious. He said the apartment where the fire started was occupied by six or seven people and does not appear to have been subdivided illegally.
But Village Mayor Wayne Hall said the building was overcrowded and the apartments were partitioned without permits. The village is now investigating the building's code violation history.
"I'm sure this building had violations," Hall said. "We're looking to see what kind of violations."
Dorchester Llc of Oyster Bay, which is managed by Bradford Mott, owns the building and functions as its landlord, Hall said. Attempts to reach Mott were not successful.
It could be weeks before residents can return to their homes because the buildings do not have electricity or gas, he said. The blaze started at 6:20 a.m. Saturday and was extinguished at 11:30 a.m., Clark said. More than a dozen area fire departments responded to the scene, officials said.
Among the injured is a woman who suffered a heart attack and is in critical condition. The condition of the woman who fell from the rope is unknown. And three firefighters were hurt by debris in their eyes, Clark said. The woman who jumped from the third-story window suffered fractures and is in stable condition. She is at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, officials said.
Three fire victims were taken to NUMC, hospital spokeswoman Shelley Lotenberg said. One was discharged and two others were admitted, she said. Other injured residents were taken to Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola.
Residents of the apartment building said they awoke to loud screams in Spanish of "fire" and immediately raced down fire escapes and stairways. Carlos Varohona, 42, who lives in a neighboring apartment building, said he heard a loud "pop" and then saw people fleeing into the street.
"The material things can be replaced, but the lives of other people are the most important," he said.
The third floor of the building was destroyed and the roof was caved in, Clark said. The building, which has 15 apartments, is now uninhabitable, he said.
Residents of four adjoining apartment buildings were also evacuated. Roughly 70 residents were taking shelter Saturday at a recreation center at Kennedy Park, Clark said. The Red Cross was on the scene and providing assistance.
Clark said that Friday night's blizzard delayed the response, but that crews were on standby to assist in the operations. Frozen fire hydrants were also a challenge, he said.
With Patrick Whittle