Three-alarm fire in Bensonhurst building leaves nearly 30 residents displaced

Jaime DeJesus

February 18, 2020

Originally published in Brooklyn Reporter on February 18, 2020.

BENSONHURST — A three-alarm fire destroyed a Bensonhurst building on Friday, leaving over two dozen residents displaced and leading to the discovery of an illegal home conversion. 

The blaze broke out on the second floor of a two-story home on 85th Street between 19th Avenue and 20th Avenue on Friday, Feb. 14 at around 11:38 p.m., according to the FDNY. It spread to the attached house next door. 

Approximately 33 units and 168 firefighters rushed to the scene. Officials declared the fire under control at 2:49 a.m. One firefighter sustained minor injuries.

On Saturday, Feb. 15, FDNY fire marshals stated that the cause of the three-alarm fire “was accidental, careless discard of smoking materials.”

“There was another fire in the area, so units were coming in out of order, so to speak. We got here, we saw smoke, heavy smoke in both buildings,” Deputy Chief David Maj said. “Everywhere we opened up we had fire, so it was a very labor intensive operation. Thankfully no one was hurt.”

Maj also noted that the Red Cross was on the scene relocating people.

“As you can see with the weather, it added to a lot of difficulty to the operation but right now we are still putting out pockets of fire,” Maj said. “The weather contributed to putting the tower ladder in operation but we didn’t have too much of an issue. We got it up pretty quickly.”

The Department of Buildings said inspectors found an illegal conversion in the house’s attic, according to CBS news, complete with illegal gas plumbing.

“And THIS is why we won’t stop screaming about illegal conversions here in southern Brooklyn,” said Councilmember Justin Brannan via Facebook. “Illegal conversions put EVERYONE in danger: vulnerable, often low-income immigrant tenants, their neighbors and first responders.

We must crack down on unscrupulous landlords who knowingly exploit and put their tenants in real danger. City Hall, are you listening?”

State Senator Andrew Gounardes added, “25 people in a two family home? Simply unacceptable. We need to hold landlords and those that take advantage of those in need of [affordable] housing accountable.”

When asked further about the situation, Gounardes replied via social media.

“We have extensive laws on the books to stop this and punish the landlords who do this,” he said. “The problem is that unless the DOB can get into the homes to see the violations, they cannot issue the stringent fines that we passed as part of the aggravated illegal conversion bill a few years ago. It is very hard to get into these homes and it becomes even harder for DOB to get warrants inspect the premises. I’m working on a few ideas, but ultimately, we need to figure out how to make it easier to get warrants without violating the 4th Amendment. Illegal housing is not affordable housing.”

Maj added that the firefighters “performed admirably in very punishing cold conditions that you see. Everyone’s got ice covering their helmets. They worked hard. The fire is out and everyone is safe.”

Additional reporting by Adam Balhetchet