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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

House destroyed in explosion had history

Suffolk County Fire and Arson investigator at the

Suffolk County Fire and Arson investigator at the house that exploded on Prospect Drive in Brentwood. (Aug. 15, 2012) Credit: John Roca

'Nobody used the front door," a woman who once lived at 12 Prospect Dr. in Brentwood said Wednesday. Instead, tenants -- and she only knew of three who shared a carved-up first floor -- walked in and out of the building through a side entrance.

That was five years ago. But the woman, who did not want her name printed, had no problem taking pen in hand to draw a diagram of which apartment was where. She said there was an upstairs and a basement. But she didn't know how many people lived there. She remembered her rent -- $475 a month -- and that she had paid a broker's fee.

Only later, she said, would she discover electric outlets that did not work. And rats. Which is why, ultimately, she decided to move.

Rah-quan Palmer, 18 months old, and his parents would come to settle at 12 Prospect Dr. years later. As it turns out, the building they called home wasn't what it appeared to be.

According to Islip Town officials, the house has four owners, two of them apparently husband and wife. Since 2001, one or more of the owners has shuttled the deed back and forth among themselves, officials said.

Islip has a thick file on the property. And with good reason. Every time the town received complaints from tenants or neighbors -- about rat nests, black mold, green mold, garbage, water leaks, broken sinks or a filthy pool -- officials said they acted.

They had to work to gain access, most often through tenants rather than owners. Once inside, they would photograph alleged violations in plain sight.

From there, it was off to district court, more than once since 2005, where an owner would appear and agree to make fixes. When inspectors returned to check, they would find work in progress or complete, officials said.

"They would rip out sinks, make repairs, but over time everything would go back to where it was and sometimes worse," said Inez Birbiglia, the town's spokeswoman. "It was frustrating because we were doing what we were supposed to do."

She said the number of rooms in the house apparently increased over the years. In 2005, tenants said they paid from $350 (for a room in the cellar) to $1,600 a month.

More recently, officials said they found eight padlocked doors. Yesterday, tenants said they used the locks to protect property in their rooms.

Islip's system was built to keep absentee landlords from carving single-family homes into mazes, destroying neighborhoods and endangering lives.

In this instance (as in too many others on Long Island), the benefits of running an unlicensed boardinghouse trumped the cost of fines and temporary fixes. "It wasn't a house," Birbiglia said, "it was a profit-making center."

Rah-quan was said to be smiling on Tuesday before the house's two propane tanks -- for which there were no required permits -- exploded.

Debris rocketed so high that clothing still hung from trees Wednesday; so wide that a wall bowed in on the house next door while a single work boot rested against a fence across the street.

Four building residents; a plumber and a State Farm insurance representative working in the house; two neighbors; seven police officers and two firefighters were injured as a result of the blast, police said.

Wednesday, a woman added a white teddy bear and flowers to a memorial on the fence surrounding a pile of rubble where a police officer had found Rah-quan, run with him to her patrol car and rushed the boy to a hospital.

That's where Rah-quan, last seen by his family smiling at 12 Prospect Dr., was pronounced dead.

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