Three would-be robbers ignited a popular Fifth Avenue religious store early last Thursday after the owner refused to give them any money — and luckily, no one was injured in a fire that consumed the 25-year-old botanica and the apartments upstairs.
Police said that three unarmed men tried to rob Botanica La Fe, which sold candles and small figurines, on Nov. 15 at 5 pm, but when the two employees, one 56 and the other 83, refused to comply, the would-be robbers stole a cellphone, doused the victims and the shop with gasoline, and then set the shop on fire.
George Winter, the owner of Brooklyn Frame Works, which sits right next to the botanica, between Sterling Place and Douglass Street, had been working with a client when he heard a loud explosion and the sound of shattering glass.
“I ran outside and saw there was a fire and saw people running away, and I grabbed a fire extinguisher and tried to put it out,” said Winter the following afternoon. “The fire was out of control within seconds.”
By 8:40 pm, when Eve Stahlberger, 32, walked down the block to her apartment above the botanica, the fire was out, and her building was nothing but a “charcoal briquette.”
“On my way down the street, I saw fire trucks and thought, ‘Oh there’s a fire on my block,’” recalled Stahlberger, a yoga teacher who’s lived in the building for seven years. “Then I get closer, and I thought, ‘Oh, the botanica blew up.’
“And then, I see that my windows are shattered and covered in plastic.”
Stahlberger spent the next few hours removing her few un-charred items from the building and was thankful for one thing: “The two dogs and the cat in the building were fine,” she said.
Former patrons of the religious shop were saddened by news of the fire.
Stefanie Abraham walked by the shop on Friday evening, passing between the blackened, melted awning, and a charred Gingko tree.
“My son, he’s 4, and he really likes the Santeria statues,” said Abraham.
“The man who ran the botanica was part of the neighborhood. He was so nice to my son. I never knew his name, and he never knew mine.”