Michael Amon

Arson Is Blamed in Blaze That Killed Man in Queens

Posted in Uncategorized by michaelamon on December 8, 2006

July 20, 2006 p. B1
Kareem Fahim and Michael Amon

Arson is the cause of a four-alarm fire that tore through five residential buildings in Queens on Tuesday night, killing a man and critically injuring a woman, police and fire officials said yesterday.

Investigators were focusing on several possible motives for the blaze, which started shortly before 10 p.m. and spread through five two-story buildings on 169th Street in Jamaica. Among the possible motives, investigators said, is a continuing dispute between the landlord and a tenant who lived in the house where the authorities say the fire started.

The man who died, James Crocker, 83, was a retired custodian who relatives said could not be coaxed to jump from a second-floor window, even as the fire grew in intensity. He was pronounced dead at the scene on Tuesday night, the police said.

”My father was too scared,” said Mr. Crocker’s daughter, Jamie Williams, 39. She said that her brother, Jeffrey, 46, stood below his father’s window as the fire raged, begging him to jump into his arms. ”He didn’t want to jump,” Ms. Williams said.

Alexandria Roberts, 46, the younger Mr. Crocker’s companion, was critically injured in the fire and was taken to Mary Immaculate Hospital in Jamaica with severe burns, the police said. She was later transferred to New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital, according to Mary Immaculate Hospital.

The Police Department’s Arson and Explosion Unit will lead the investigation into the cause of the fire, as they do after all suspicious fires that result in fatalities.

A spokesman for the Fire Department said that marshals had determined that the fire started on the first floor of 103-15 169th Street, a two-story wood-frame home that is attached to five similar homes that were gutted by the fire.

Investigators suspect that two intentional fires were set in separate rooms on the first floor, the spokesman said, adding that samples of the rubble had been taken to a laboratory to determine whether an accelerant had been used.

The police did not name any suspects in the case. Residents said the house where the fire started had been the scene of a bitter dispute between a landlord who wanted to sell the property and tenants who refused to move.

The house’s owner, Gerald Brown, said yesterday that his tenants, two women, had moved in eight months ago. About six months ago, he said, they both stopped paying the $1,200 monthly rent.

Mr. Brown said that both he and the tenants had called the police to intervene in the dispute over the last few months, and that the last time officers visited the house was Tuesday, when they told him he could not change the locks.

”If I could have changed the locks,” Mr. Brown said, ”this never would have happened.”

The police were not immediately able to confirm their visits to the house or Mr. Brown’s version of events.

Ms. Williams said: ”They came and got their stuff yesterday afternoon. I could hear them in there. It sounded like they were tearing the place apart.”

The fire started about 10 p.m. on Tuesday, Ms. Williams and other residents say, after the tenants and other people left the house.

Siraj Sajid, who owns the house next door, said he returned home from shopping about 9:40 p.m. and saw his neighbor and one other person drive off in a car. Mr. Sajid said he waved goodbye, and his neighbor waved back, he said.

”After they left, I went inside,” he said. ”Just five minutes later, there was a fire.”

When approached by a reporter, one of Mr. Brown’s tenants refused to talk about the fire.

Mr. Crocker, who was called Papa by everyone in the neighborhood, inherited his house from his parents and had lived there for decades, his children said. He had worked as a custodian for the Police Department in the 103rd Precinct, in Jamaica, and the 107th Precinct, in Fresh Meadows, and retired about 10 years ago.

Three years ago, his wife, Patricia, died, and his health, too, began to fail; he suffered a series of strokes over the last few years. But recently, his relatives said, Mr. Crocker seemed better. ”He’s back to his old self in the last few weeks,” said his granddaughter, Kara Williams.

Mr. Crocker was watching television in his second-floor bedroom when the fire started, his daughter said. His relatives escaped, and realized he was still inside. His son ran to the second floor, and told his father to jump out the window. When his father hesitated, Jeffrey Crocker jumped, and called back up to his father, telling him he would catch him.

And then, his children said, they lost sight of their father in the flames.

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