The testimony in the arson-conspiracy trial for a massive 2016 inferno in Sheepshead Bay has brought allegations of illegal gambling and mob violence, but also a tale of heroism on that hellish night.
The federal prosecutors accuse Leonid Gershman and Aleksey Tsvetkov of conspiring in the torching the building at 2220 Voorhies Avenue May 2016 because the defendants allegedly operated an illegal high-stakes poker game nearby on Coney Island Avenue and believed a rival poker game was operating on the ground floor. But the second and third floors contained apartments, and one resident who was trapped in the blaze with his younger brother shared on the witness stand the harrowing experience.
“A toxic smell of smoke woke me up, and smoke was everywhere,” Shakzod Bobokalonov told the court. “I ran to the window and tried to open it, but smoke came from outside the window.”
Bobokalonov tried to figure out where the fire was in the building, but the smoke drove him back into the apartment and he rushed to his 11-year-old brother.
“Smoke just kept coming, there was so much smoke, so I went to close the front door and woke him up,” he said.
Bobokalonov wrapped his younger brother in this shirt, but there was little else he could do but hope for rescue.
“I took off my shirt to cover my younger brother, just in case something would fall on him and then we waited for help,” he said.
New York’s Bravest soon arrived in force, and one of the first firefighters to arrive at the scene also testified on Aug. 9, describing a building engulfed in smoke and flame.
“We pulled up on Dooley where we saw smoke coming out of the building, there was smoke coming out of all floors of the building,” said Gabriel Buonincontri of Ladder 169.
Prosecutor’s showed the court a dramatic amateur video of the scene showing Bobokalonov and his younger brother’s rescue by firefighters, after which Bobokalonov was rushed to the hospital for treatment for smoke inhalation.
“I was throwing up every time I would try to breathe, I would just throw up again and again,” he said.
But Bobokalonov wasn’t the only one injured in the blaze, which eventually took more than 130 firefighters to bring under control. Two of New York’s Bravest were also hospitalized — including Buonincontri, who suffered a lasting spinal injury.
Buonincontri entered the flaming building through the rear door, and had to feel his way around for survivors due to the heavy smoke.
“There was heavy smoke and zero visibility, so I felt around for any signs of life,” he said.
Meanwhile, another team of firefighters broke open the front door and then began blasting the fire hose, which accidentally hit Buonincontri square in the face, knocking him to the ground, blowing off his oxygen mask, and pouring debris on top of him.
“It pushed me back on the floor and ripped my mask off,” he said.
Buonincontri started to choke from the fumes so once he got his mask back on, he stepped out of the building for a short breather, but eventually rejoined the effort until the fire was under control and he was sent to Kings County Hospital. There he was diagnosed with three herniated disks in his neck and had to receive an operation to replace his broken shoulder.
Buonincontri has not gone into a fire since the night of the Voorhies blaze, due to the injuries he sustained that night.