Building blazes that kill kids usually burn as brightly the next morning in the tabloids.
But the fire that took 8-year-old Jashawn Parker in the late evening of Aug. 6, 2002, on a typically dense northwest-Bronx block somehow never got much ink—just a couple brief stories in the Daily News and a small item in the Post.
It’s unclear why. The fire stemmed from a hyperdocumented virtual time bomb that tenants and advocates had worked to defuse for two years.
The six-story building at 3569 DeKalb Avenue, just off Jerome Avenue and next to Woodlawn Cemetery, was a stunning case study of the city’s flawed housing-code enforcement system, with the scope of dangerous neglect apparent to anyone with an Internet connection. At the time of the fire it had 387 code violations, with leaks, water damage, electrical problems, roaches and mice among them. At least two Housing Court judges cut the building’s landlords slack rather than appoint an outside administrator, despite minimal signs of repair progress.
Indeed, court documents point to years of official concern, but little successful action, over serious housing code violations at the building. Records suggested that through a succession of named owners in the years before the fire, one constant on mortgages and other property documents surrounding 3569 DeKalb was the name Frank Palazzolo.
Last fall, we went looking for Jashawn’s father, Paul (whose legal first name is Headley) Parker. We found him living in East New York, Brooklyn, where he rents a room in his sister’s house. He picks up occasional jobs in construction but struggles to pay his bills, including $55 a month for his cell phone. It took a few of weeks of daily calls to reach him during a time when his cell was in service. On Halloween, we met up with Parker at the Canarsie Piers in Brooklyn, where he was fishing, something the 51-year-old native Jamaican does regularly to unwind and cope with still raw memories that have traveled with him to the opposite end of the city. We sat down with him on a bench, and he told us about that terrible summer night and the unanswered alarms leading up to it.
For Parker, it started out like most others since 1995, when his wife, Jackie, the popular owner of a hair salon around the block, died of an asthma attack. In Parker’s room in the family’s one-bedroom apartment on the first floor, he put his youngest son to sleep. He later carried a sleeping Jashawn (whom he calls Shawn) to the boy’s bed in the living room and put him down there. Usually, Jashawn would wake up before too long and climb back in with his dad. That night he stayed put.
At around 11:30 p.m., a fire broke out in the kitchen. It soon traveled through the apartment. On one side of the blaze, P.J. ran through the flames, out the door and across the hall to neighbor Lissette Mora. Skin was hanging off his body. Mora, who says her son Marcus and Jashawn were inseparable, tried to get in the apartment door but couldn’t. She could hear Jashawn crying and yelling from inside.
On the other side, at around the same time, Parker recalls, he was awakened when firefighters outside on the fire escape banged at his window. They shouted at him to come out. Instead, he went the other way, through his bedroom door, yelling, “Shawn, P.J.! Shawn, P.J.!” The force of the fire blew him backward. As he retreated, firefighters broke through the window and got him down to the street. There, he ran around shouting, asking everyone where his sons were.
Jashawn, a good student (his father calls him “immaculate” in this regard), apparently remembered a lesson given to his class by a firefighter just a couple of months earlier. He went into the bathroom, his father says, filled the tub with water, got in and put a wet cloth over his face.
But smoke came under the closed door and overtook him. Parker, hospitalized with smoke inhalation, was not told until a couple of days later that his son was dead. The news sent him into cardiac arrest, and doctors had to resuscitate him. Eventually he got to see P.J., at a hospital in Manhattan, wrapped in bandages head to toe. “He looked like a mummy,” Parker says.
Years of warnings
Long before the fire, tenants at 3569 DeKalb had done their best to address myriad problems there. Two years earlier, a group of them went to talk to Sally Dunford, head of West Bronx Housing, a local advocacy group run by the Bronx Jewish Community Council, to see if there was any way to force the landlord to address the extreme conditions. “I have to admit, my first reaction was, they had to be exaggerating, because I couldn’t figure out how a building could’ve gotten that bad in this neighborhood without anybody realizing it,” says Dunford, who’s been handling housing complaints for 17 years.
But she changed her mind after a visit to the site. “We found conditions that were just horrendous. I hadn’t seen anything like that.”
She says the apartment house had sinking floors, crumbling walls, mold throughout and a hole in the courtyard that a child could fall through into the basement.
Parker was well aware of the many problems in the building. At one point, he had been the building’s super but left that job to focus on outside work because it didn’t pay enough. He said he was a porter, a less time-consuming job, at the time of the fire. Electrical outages throughout the building were common, Parker says. Many outlets in his own apartment didn’t work and didn’t even have cover plates. There were holes in the walls.
And, Paul says, he smelled gas often and complained about it to his landlord and Con Ed. P.J. told attorneys questioning him in a deposition that he could hear the gas leaking from the stove and remembered his father reporting it to the super and the landlord.
Dunford’s work journals indicate she began speaking to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development as early as August 2000 about securing the appointment of an outside administrator of the property—known as a 7A—in Housing Court. In a society built on property rights, it’s tough to persuade judges to take that step. Dunford says housing officials, while concerned about the dangerous level of decay, weren’t sure their program had sufficient resources to handle the building. But the agency eventually decided it had no choice but to take the case to a judge.
In Housing Court, however, at least two judges made rulings common in such cases, giving the owner more time to make the repairs himself. In June 2001, Judge Sheldon Halprin wrote up a list of things that would be fixed and set deadlines, and everyone concerned signed off. Among the litany of repairs to be addressed, there were “corrosion on gas headers” and “electrical hazardous overloads—50% electric in apartments—excessive soft wiring,” rotted subflooring in several apartments, leaks in water and waste lines, and water damage in several apartments.
Then, in November, another judge, Lizbeth Gonzalez, took over from Halprin (they rotate regularly) and drew up a new agreement for fixing the many violations. In March 2002, which was the last court date before the fire, all C violations (the most serious) were ordered to be repaired in 30 days and the others in 90. (Asked why a 7A administrator wasn’t appointed sooner, Gonzalez told City Limits, “I don’t have a clue without the file, and even then, since it was nine years ago, I might not remember.”)
The agreements and orders were toothless. There were no ultimatums or penalties.
The fire department determined that the blaze at 3569 DeKalb Avenue was an “accidental electrical fire,” said Frank Dwyer, a department spokesman, in an email. Whether gas played a role is unclear. FDNY documents about the incident report that, a day after the fire, P.J. told investigators “there has been a gas leak at the stove.” In the days after the fire, tenants told the Norwood News that they regularly smelled gas in the building.
A state inspector general probed the fire as part of a fraud investigation (See “The Subsidy Scam,” p. 38), blaming it on a jury-rigged electrical system, including overloaded and overheated fuse boxes, “brittle electrical wires and rusty electrical cables, and the use of extension wires where armored cables should have been installed.”
After the fire, inspectors from the buildings department noted that someone had set up a fan in the basement “to keep the wires from overheating.” It’s unclear if the fans were in operation before the fire broke out. In any case, electrical hazards weren’t the only dangers facing tenants of the building: The Parkers’ apartment had no smoke detectors, according to Parker and the state inspector general’s report, and other tenants tell City Limits their apartments didn’t have them at the time of the fire either.
A building without owners
Before his son’s death, Parker says, he raised the problems at 3569 DeKalb with whoever would listen. But there was a changing and murky roster of people with responsibility for the building where Jashawn lived and died.
A company called Quest Property Management V purchased the property in 1997; the address on that deed is 1075 Central Park Avenue, Palazzolo’s office before he moved into his current Scarsdale headquarters. Mortgage documents in 1997, 1998 and 2000 bear Palazzolo’s signature as president of Quest V. But Eric Gladstein was also deemed president of Quest V, according to a court decision related to activities prior to 2002.
In February 2002, John Cirillo and Michael Toikach became owners of 10 shares of stock in Quest V, according to information provided to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development after a 2004 subpoena. But Quest V remained the owner of 3569 DeKalb Avenue.
When the Norwood News asked Palazzolo in 2003 about the building at 3569 DeKalb and other troubled properties believed to be linked to him, he denied responsibility for the condition of any of the real estate. “I own no buildings,” he told the paper at one point, quickly switching to the third person. “Palazzolo,” he said, “is a lender.”
For his part, Parker says he doesn’t remember dealing with Palazzolo, at some point identified as the president of Quest V, or even Cirillo or Toikach, who were the company’s shareholders at the time of the fire. He only remembers telling Con Ed and the super about the problems. Con Ed did respond to his complaints shortly before the fire; workers unhooked his stove. Cirillo later testified in a civil lawsuit deposition that he learned of the gas problem in Parker’s apartment but never visited to check on the situation.
In hindsight, in addition to Housing Court, many people and agencies might have done more to prevent the disaster at 3569 DeKalb: The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development could have begun making major repairs itself, billing the owners for the work and placing a lien on the property.
Responding to a request for comment, HPD said it was the landlord who “let his building fall into extreme disrepair, and then at each step sought to obstruct the city’s efforts to hold him accountable and to put the management of the building into responsible hands via 7A.”
(Proof of the city’s commitment to ensure compliance with the housing code, spokesman Eric Bederman said, is seen in the program it launched in 2007 to force landlords to make critical repairs and an initiative piloted last year that identifies vulnerable buildings before they descend into disrepair. But these new programs suggest that the old approach to code enforcement—the one in place when Jashawn Parker died—wasn’t sufficient.)
The city’s buildings department, which did not respond to requests for comment, could also have been more aggressive. Lissette Mora told the Norwood News in 2002 that the day before the fire, she reported sporadic power and flickering lights to HPD; an HPD spokeswoman in 2002 said the agency did refer the matter to the DOB. Mora said she even called the DOB’s call center but got only an answering machine. A few weeks after the blaze, an HPD attorney was still demanding many of the same repairs. Three months after Jashawn’s death, a judge in Housing Court finally appointed a 7A administrator. He named the Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation, a respected nonprofit with deep community roots.
When the 7A designation took effect and inspectors came in full throttle, the violation count hit almost 500. The tragedy got the system moving quickly. “If a child hadn’t died in that building, we might still be doing it, for all I know,” Dunford says about the push for the 7A ruling.
Tenants say conditions in the building, now in the hands of a corporation calling itself New York Affordable Housing Associates, are somewhat improved. But there are still problems; in February, the building had 87 code violations. In November, tenants say, they went without heat and hot water for the previous two days—not a rare occurrence, they say. Mold is visible on some of the hallway ceilings, there are cracked steps in the lobby, and the broken front door allows anyone to enter.
Everyone who lived at 3569 DeKalb back then still remembers the fire. Even a 16-year-old girl, who was just 7 at the time, says she remembers clearly that she had just taken off her sneakers in her room before being rushed outside when the fire trucks arrived.
Memory the only marker
At the pier, Parker lamented Jashawn’s absence in his daily routines.
“That’s what I miss, taking him to school, getting him dressed in the morning,” Parker said, adding, “I wish I had my son with me right now. This is stuff that he loved to do too. He loved to fish.”
And then there’s his older son’s unrelenting suffering. P.J., now 23, is still traumatized, according to his father and stepbrother, Fabian Morgan, whom he lives with in his grandmother’s house in the northeast Bronx. He’s had emotional difficulties since the fire, relatives said.
“It’s been so many years, but you look at P.J. and you still see the sadness in his face,” says Mora, who still lives at 3569 DeKalb and sees him occasionally. She says her own son, Jashawn’s pal Marcus, refuses to talk about that day.
Parker gets to his son’s gravesite when he can. We gave him a ride one day, picking him up in Manhattan and heading up the Sprain Brook Parkway to Mount Hope Cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson. He knew the way to the right section of the curvy, complicated layout. But when we arrived, it took Parker a few moments to locate Jashawn’s grave as he headed slowly down the row. He eventually stopped and bowed his head. And then we saw why it was a bit of a challenge: There’s no headstone for Jashawn Parker.
Nine years after the burial, the grassy patch is not marked or identifiable in any way. The only guides are the tombstones on either side.
Meanwhile, Eric Gladstein, who relinquished formal control of the building on DeKalb Avenue eight months before the fire after pleading guilty to criminal charges (See “The Subsidy Scam,” page 38), lives in a large, gated home in the Westchester town of Armonk, six miles from Palazzolo’s estate in Bedford. Property records show he purchased it in 1999 for $1.2 million. In November a pair of reporters approached Gladstein in his driveway. He offered little except to say that he and Palazzolo were friends.
Parker did his best to get some justice in court for what happened to his sons. He filed suit against Gladstein, Cirillo, Quest Management V and Con Ed. But after nine years, there’s been no resolution. The case is technically active, but Parker’s attorney Arnold DiJoseph hasn’t been able to depose Gladstein, whose lawyer didn’t attend a court date in February. And he hasn’t named Palazzolo in the suit, facing the same legal obstacles other attorneys have experienced bringing cases for tenants in buildings linked to him.
“I’ve tried to pierce the corporate veil by suing these guys individually,” DiJoseph says. “The law firm just represents the corporation and doesn’t claim to represent the individual people.” Quest V also had no liability insurance, DiJoseph says.
Parker says he doesn’t dwell on the inequities between his own life and that of the former owners of the building that was allowed to slip into a state of fatal disrepair.
“There’s nothing they’re going to offer me that’s going to bring my son back,” he says. “It’s not going to ease my pain. I just want them to acknowledge the neglect and the things that they do and try to get away with.”
—Jacqueline Vergara, Nicholas Rizzi and Daniel Rosenblum contributed reporting to this article. William Wichert contributed valuable assistance in the story’s early days.