The four-alarm fire that destroyed a two-family apartment building in Greenpoint last week was accidental, FDNY investigators have concluded, and an investigation by Brooklyn Paper determined that the building was being foreclosed upon at the time of the fire.
The department announced on Dec. 20 that the devastating blaze – which badly damaged three residential buildings and displaced at least 18 people — was caused by food left cooking on the stove on the first floor at 137 Kingsland Ave.
The fire began just before 4 a.m. on Dec. 15 and rapidly spread through the two-story home and into the apartment buildings on either side. Residents fled into the street, banging on neighbors’ doors to wake them up as they went.
Seven people — including two firefighters — were injured in the fire, which raged for three hours before a team of more than 160 firefighters could bring it under control.
The Department of Buildings placed full vacate orders on 137 Kingsland Ave. and two adjacent buildings, 135 and 139 Kingsland Ave. — noting after inspections that all three buildings had sustained severe fire, smoke, and water damage, with holes in the shared walls between the homes.
Three other buildings were damaged by the fire and by firefighting operations, and water from the firehouses flooded two adjacent buildings.
According to the Red Cross, 18 people from ten households registered for emergency assistance after the fire, and ten people sought temporary shelter through the organization.
Loved ones have set up online fundraisers for Greenpointers who lost their homes and belongings in the fire, hoping to help them with short-term housing and necessities and long-term recovery.
One family member, Jaycee Collado, organized a fundraiser for her mother Jacqueline and brother Jayden, who she said were both hospitalized with minor injuries after the fire.
“They lost everything they had along with countless others,” Collado wrote. “They barely made it out with clothes on their back. We want to meet every immediate need they could possibly have and help them quickly transition into some sort of normalcy.”
Brooklyn native Joseph Wasserman launched a similar fundraiser for his sister, Sherry, who he said escaped with just the clothes on her back and her cell phone.
“We are doing everything we can to support Sherry as she restarts her life and readjusts to this new normal,” Wasserman wrote. “Please donate or share this with your family, friends, and colleagues to help a native New Yorker make a new home again in the city that she loves so dearly.”
It is unclear when or if residents will be able to return to their homes — after a visit on Dec. 19, DOB inspectors ordered the owners of 137 Kingsland Ave. to seal up the building, clean up debris outside, and build a construction fence around the perimeter of the property.
Residents had previously complained to the DOB that the second floor of the building had been illegally converted into two apartments, but DOB inspectors were unable to gain access to the building at the time. After the fire, inspectors concluded there was no evidence of an illegal conversion.
Brooklyn Paper was not able to contact the owner of the property, listed on city records and DOB documents as Tadeusz Kurdziel.
A building on the brink of foreclosure
According to court documents, the building was being foreclosed on at the time of the fire after Kurdziel violated the terms of a reverse mortgage loan he took out against the property in 2015.
Reverse mortgages — reserved for homeowners 62 and over, who often take the loans out when they don’t have savings or other income to rely on, according to Forbes — don’t have to be paid back until the homeowner dies or moves out. But, until that time, the borrower is required to pay taxes and insurance on the property.
Court filings state that Kurdziel and his wife Czeslawa Podgajna failed to pay property taxes in February 2021 — so their lender, American Advisors Group, paid for them, a total of more than $7,000 across two payments.
Two months later, the note holder, Reverse Mortgage Funding LLC, notified Kurdizel and Podgajna that the loan was in default because of the missed property tax payments. According to documents filed in Brooklyn Supreme Court, American Advisors Group reached out to the couple again in September 2021, advising them that they risked foreclosure if they did not pay the $7,000 debt.
Reverse Mortgage Funding began foreclosure proceedings in Brooklyn Supreme Court in January 2022, alleging that Kurdziel had not abided by the terms of the reverse mortgage — which allowed the lender to declare the full unpaid balance of the loan $488,876 due immediately.
Per court records, Kurdziel was served documents directly at 137 Kingsland Ave., Apartment 1, but never responded to the lawsuit or hired a lawyer.
In September 2023, Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Larry D. Martin issued a default judgment and Order of Reference, declaring that Kurdziel and Podgajna were in default and that a third-party “referee” would work to determine how much money the landlords owe — and how the property could be sold to fulfill that debt.
A final judgment of foreclosure has not yet been issued, and the property has not been sold. A lawyer involved with the case told Brooklyn Paper that the fire could change the lender’s course of action, but could not discuss the case further.
The property was listed for sale online for $1.4 million in January, and listings note that the two-family house “will be delivered fully vacant.”