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Officials: Cause of Hempstead fire still mystery

Firefighters battle a blaze in a Hempstead apartment

Firefighters battle a blaze in a Hempstead apartment building on Fulton Avenue. (June 17, 2012) Credit: Lou Minutoli

While the cause of a stove fire that sparked a massive Village of Hempstead apartment blaze remains a mystery, the resident of the unit where it began recounted tearfully Monday how the appliance burst into flames just days after she and her four children moved in.

"All I did was turn on the stove and the whole bottom started flaming up," Maria Rodriguez said in an interview Monday.

The family had moved into the apartment at 590 Fulton Ave. just two days before the Sunday fire. They had lived at 600 Fulton Ave., she said, adding that she had just turned on the stove for the first time to make dinner when it erupted. She said she ran into the hall, grabbed a neighbor and called 911 before gathering her kids and fleeing.

The blaze that left dozens of people homeless has stumped investigators.

"It's unclear as to what happened with the stove," said Bo Pilczak, a supervisor with the Nassau fire marshal's office, adding that there did not appear to be a problem with safety equipment in the building. "Everything seemed to be working appropriately."

The fire was able to spread quickly because Rodriguez left the door open when she scrambled out of the apartment, Pilczak said. The cross ventilation gave the fire enough oxygen to rapidly spread, he said.

Rodriguez will not be charged because the fire does not appear suspicious, said Pilczak, who also confirmed that the stove was brand new.

Building owner Karan Singh declined to comment Monday.

The inconclusive determination is little consolation to the dozens of people who were forced out of their apartments. As many as 72 of them, including 20 children, were housed overnight in a temporary shelter in the gymnasium at Hempstead High School.

About two dozen others slept overnight at the Bedrock Bar & Grill, down the block from the apartment building, known as Fulton Manor.

Monday, they waited for word from the Department of Social Services about when they could return to their homes. A spokesman for the American Red Cross of Greater New York, Sam Kille, said up to 12 apartments were destroyed.

"I can see my neighbors' house next door," said Lillie Griffin, 49. "His bathroom fell in my bathroom!"

Griffin was being advised by Department of Social Services social worker Juan Rodriguez.

Hempstead Mayor Wayne Hall said DSS would provide rent vouchers to residents of destroyed apartments.

"They put me in a hotel," Griffin told Rodriguez outside the entrance to the department. "They told me to come back in a week, but what am I going to wear? I don't have anything."

Rodriguez told her to head to the Red Cross Shelter at the school where they would give her a debit card to buy clothes.

Griffin stayed with a neighbor, but doesn't want to overstay her welcome.

"I'm glad I'm alive and that I made it out," she said. "I wasn't burned, I was just a little distraught."

Outside the building Monday, one resident, Daniel Reiner, 45, said his apartment was destroyed and he had lost two cats -- Tiger and Patches -- in the evacuation.

"It's heartbreaking," he said. "I spent the night in my car."

And, Linda Harvey, who lives on the sixth floor, was luckier than some of her neighbors.

"My apartment wasn't really damaged, but that doesn't really matter because I can't get in," she said, adding that she will stay in Elmont with her children until she is allowed back in.

"Today is going to be a very much wait and see what happens next as officials inspect the apartments to see which ones residents can go back to," Kille said.

Residents cannot return to the building until it passes a fire safety check, said Arthur Chernault, the village's building supervisor. The building's standpipe system shut down during the fire and needs to be fixed before residents can return, he said.

"We wouldn't allow anybody in there until we've had a chance to look at it," he said. "It would be premature to let people into a building that has not been checked out."

With Zachary R. Dowdy, Laura Figueroa, Nicole Fuller, Paul LaRocco and John Valenti

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