Residents blast officials after Hempstead fire

Firefighters fight the blaze which started at 6:20 Firefighters fight the blaze which started at 6:20 a.m. on the third floor of 9-17 St. Pauls Road North in Hempstead. (Feb. 9, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / Karen Wiles Stabile

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Survivors of the deadly Hempstead Village apartment fire nearly two weeks ago questioned the safety of their complex and expressed frustration with building inspections in an emotional exchange with village officials Tuesday night.

The village board meeting room was packed with more than 80 residents, many of whom escaped the Feb. 9 fire at 17 St. Paul's Road North that claimed the life of Guadalupe Ramirez, 37, and her 8-year-old son, Fernando. More than 250 residents, many still in their pajamas, were forced out of five adjoining apartment buildings and into snow-covered streets.

"You have blood on your hands," community activist Saul Linares told the board as the audience clapped in agreement.

"Don't come blaming this board for this tragedy," Mayor Wayne J. Hall Sr. responded. "We will in the future make sure this doesn't happen again."

Displaced residents, mostly Hispanic, complained there were no working fire alarms, accessible fire escapes or fire extinguishers in the five buildings when flames broke out.

"How many more people have to die before the village takes care of the violations in the buildings?" said community activist Carlos Canales, who alleged residents didn't receive help from the village because many were undocumented immigrants.

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Hall disputed those claims. "We didn't treat anybody any differently," he said.

Trustee Livio Rosario said he would propose a law to end the grandfathering of buildings built before the state required fire alarm and smoke detection systems. He also proposed an emergency preparedness task force to provide housing assistance and benefit coordination.

"The mayor has failed to take responsible leadership in addressing the complaints and safety in rent-regulated buildings," Rosario said. "It was our responsibility to have the building inspected . . . and it wasn't done. . . . Because of that, I do feel some blood on my hands."

Hall said in response, "I am embarrassed that Trustee Rosario would use this as a political steppingstone," referring to the village elections next month.

A village building department inspector in January 2011 found 21 violations, which were corrected two months later. Violations included broken fire alarm pull boxes, missing fire alarm horns, objects blocking access to fire escapes and depleted fire extinguishers. A re-inspection Friday found some unspecified violations, said deputy superintendent Joseph Simone.

James Hickman, of the Nassau fire marshal's office, said Wednesday the fire was accidental since it was caused by a candle in an apartment. He added the building's fire alarm system was recently upgraded.

Officials with Dorchester Llc of Oyster Bay, which owns and manages the building, declined to comment Wednesday.

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