A furious fire that may have been an act of arson killed at least five people in Brooklyn early Saturday, with a woman frantically trying to throw an infant girl to safety from a third-story window, fire officials said.
Eighteen to 20 people lived in apartments on the second and third floors of a building on 86th Street in Bensonhurst where the fire broke out at about 2:30 a.m. The restaurant H.K. Tea and Sushi took up the first floor.
Officials believe the fire started behind the first-floor entrance door to the apartments, said Fire Commissioner Salvatore J. Cassano.
"That's not where a fire normally would start," he said. "Certainly, if somebody starts a fire there intentionally, they would certainly be looking to kill somebody, because there's no way to get out."
He said the fire was "very likely to be incendiary." Asked if that would mean arson, Cassano said, "Absolutely."
He said more than 140 firefighters were dispatched to the building and that the scene when they arrived was "very chaotic," with "people hanging out the windows."
Firefighters used ladders to rescue residents, and children were handed down from windows, Cassano said. One child was lowered in a car seat, he said.
Firefighters who had gone into the building to look for residents had to come out at one point because the fire was too intense, Cassano said.
A woman tossed a 2-month-old girl from the third floor in a lifesaving effort. That baby was in serious but stable condition with skull fractures at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, fire officials said. It is not known if the woman was the baby's mother or what became of her.
Two other residents sustained serious injuries.
The 2-year-old lowered in the car seat had minor injuries and was in stable condition at Long Island Jewish, officials said.
Cassano said the blaze and apartments crowded with furniture prevented some from reaching a rear fire escape. Others were able to make it.
"They couldn't get out the hallway because there was fire from the first floor all the way up to the roof," he said.
Four of the dead were found on the third floor and one on the second floor, Cassano said. The dead and injured have not been identified.
The three-alarm blaze was under control at about 5:15 a.m., fire department spokesman Frank Dwyer said. Thirteen firefighters sustained minor injuries. "Firefighters did a tremendous job trying to rescue as many people as they could," Cassano said.
The roof partly collapsed and the building was badly damaged, making it difficult for crews to search the building, he said.
People at the scene Saturday afternoon were overcome with emotion. A sobbing man buried his head in his hands as he leaned against a parked van. A nearby woman said the man, a friend, lost five family members in the fire, but she declined to elaborate as she led him away.
The fire also interfered with service on an elevated subway line. Service was restored to the D and M trains at the 20th Avenue Station after 1:30 p.m.
With Gary Dymski and Matthew Chayes