Cops investigating the blistering Saturday morning blaze that took the lives of four men and a woman didn’t have to look too far to find the man who set the fire — he lived right in the apartment building.
So said cops from the 62nd Precinct as they took 27-year-old Daniel Ignacio into custody Tuesday, charging him with setting the fire that killed the five Guatemalan immigrants, including 34-year-old Luisa Chan, a doting mother of two who spent her last few breaths lowering her two children to safety.
After he confessed to setting the 2:30 a.m. fire, cops charged Ignacio with five counts of murder in the second degree and one count of arson. He had yet to be arraigned on the charges as this paper went to press.
During questioning, Ignacio, who lived in a second-floor apartment above the HK Tea & Sushi at 2033 86th Street, admitted to dousing a roll of toilet paper in paint thinner and tossing it into a baby carriage under the stairs while he was in a drunken stupor.
He then went to bed, allowing the fire to grow in intensity and climb to the above floors.
Panicked residents couldn’t escape the flames, investigators surmised. Only a lucky few, like 38-year-old Miguel Chan, managed to climb out of windows after helping his wife Luisa lower their children to safety.
According to published reports, the couple put the youngest child — two-month-old Maria — into her baby seat and literally tossed the newborn from a third-floor window to a Good Samaritan down below. Maria reportedly suffered a fractured skull in the fall.
They also lowered their two-year-old son Josias to safety before Miguel and Luisa were separated by the flames.
“Take care of the kids,” she said as she disappeared into the smoke. Miguel managed to climb to safety. Luisa never made it out.
Paramedics rushed little Maria to Lutheran Medical Center, where she was listed in critical condition, although she is expected to recover. Josias and his father were also taken to Lutheran, where they were listed in stable condition after treatment.
As charred bodies were removed from the rubble, rumors began to fly about who had caused the blaze, which by Sunday had been deemed an arson. Some neighbors believed that the fire was gang related because of some graffiti found carved into the door. Others thought it was a landlord/tenant dispute or sparked by a lover’s quarrel involving one of the tenants.
It wasn’t until the police acquired footage from several nearby surveillance cameras that they identified Ignacio, who reportedly helped Chan lower Josias to safety, as a possible suspect.
As he was being brought to central booking, Ignacio said he was remorseful for what he did, but blamed “demons” for his actions. Investigators do not believe that he acted out of vengeance.
With the physical and spiritual pain etching deep lines on his face, Miguel, a simple construction worker hoping for a new life for his family in America, symbolized the horror he and the other families living in the two floors above the sushi restaurant felt the day after the fire as they sifted through the rubble.
Also left homeless was Ignacio, although it was unclear if he was immediately listed as one of the victims.
During a plea to the media Monday, detectives from the 62nd Precinct admitted that, since many of the victims were undocumented immigrants, some had escaped the flames and ran off, even though they had suffered burns and other injuries. Eighteen people lived in the two floors, police said.
At least one previously unaccounted-for tenant showed up at Iglesia de Jovenes Christianos, a Spanish church on 17th Avenue near 87th Street, that had become a makeshift safe haven and staging area for victims and their families.
“They shouldn’t be afraid of their immigration status,” Pastor Erick Salgado of Iglesia de Jovenes Christianos explained Monday. “If they have information that could lead police to the person who committed the crime, they should come forward.”
Pastor Salgado told this paper that area residents have been donating clothes and toys to help these displaced families in a time of need.
He was also working with several neighborhood funeral homes so proper burial services could get underway.
“But the final decision will be with the victim’s families,” he said.
City Councilman Vincent Gentile (D, Bay Ridge) has reportedly been involved in helping one family return a victim’s body back to Guatemala for burial.
At the same time, he has begun a new push to make sure that area residents have smoke alarms with working batteries. Chan told reporters that while there was a smoke detector in his apartment, there weren’t any batteries inside.
“My thoughts and prayers are with those who lost loved ones in the fire,” Gentile said. “As we mourn for them, we also need to focus on protecting our community and its families from ever having to suffer the same fate.”
To make sure of this, Gentile is working with the FDNY to distribute smoke alarms to families in the 43rd Council District. At least 200 fire alarms provided by the FDNY have already been snapped up by area residents, according to the New York Daily News.
As this paper went to press, a vigil for the victims was expected to be held at the site of the fire on Friday, February 5, at 7 p.m.