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.