Reproduced from The New York Times

Thursday, August 31, 2006

by Michael J. Wildes, Mayor, City of Englewood

2-10 N. Van Brunt Street

Englewood , NJ 07631


Fire in Subdivided Basement Kills Two in a New Jersey Home

Published: August 31, 2006

ENGLEWOOD, N.J., Aug. 30 — A four-alarm fire tore through a three-story wood house on James Street here on Wednesday, killing two residents who, the authorities said, were living in illegal basement apartments. A tenant in a third basement apartment was critically injured.

The fire started around 3:40 a.m., said Chief Robert Moran of the Englewood Fire Department, and the flames quickly spread to the first and second floors of the house. In all, 14 people were in the house at the time of the fire, and most were members of the family that owns the property, Chief Moran said.

One of the victims was identified as Sriwipha Phathan, 27, of Thailand. The identity of the second victim, a 41-year-old man from Mexico, was not released because his family had not been notified. Both died from burns and smoke inhalation and were found in separate bedrooms, Chief Moran said.

A third tenant, Augustin Palafox, was found in a bathroom with severe burns and was listed in critical condition at St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston, N.J. Chief Moran said it appeared that Mr. Palafox was trying to put out the fire.

Chief Moran said that the basement had been divided into individual units, but that the city’s planning office had no record of permits being issued to the owner, Oscar Cortes, for the work. Deputy Chief Arthur O’Keefe of the Englewood Police Department said charges were likely to be filed against Mr. Cortes for illegal units. Arson investigators said the fire was accidental, but they had not determined how it started.

Mr. Cortes’s daughter, Natalia, said the family moved into the house at 79 James Street about four years ago and renovated the basement in anticipation of the arrival of relatives from Colombia. When the relatives did not arrive, Mr. Cortes rented rooms to the three fire victims and a woman, Gloria Mendoza.

On Wednesday morning, Ms. Mendoza stood a few doors down from the charred house, where she paid $350 a month, and spoke briefly to reporters. She said that she was at a friend’s house when the fire started, and when she returned she found the house in flames.

Mr. Palafox and the unidentified man worked at a deli and a grocery store a few blocks from the house and Ms. Phathan worked at a Thai restaurant in town, Ms. Mendoza said.

A shortage of low-cost housing has become a growing problem in Bergen County, and illegal conversions are becoming more common, Bergen County officials said. Mayor Michael Wildes of Englewood said that in recent years the growing number of illegal immigrants moving into the city had led landlords to capitalize on the situation.

“It is a tremendous challenge in our nation and in our city where people with economic challenges are forced into these situations,” Mr. Wildes said.

He said that he did not know how many illegal units Englewood had but that the city had been increasing inspections in recent months.

“Any landlord that profits or benefits from situations like this should be prosecuted,” he said.

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ABC News Coverage: Two Dead, One Clinging to Life in House Fire

CBS News Coverage: Burning N.J. Home Traps 14 People In Basement

Click Here for The Record Coverage on the James Street House Fire




Paid for by Friends of Michael J. Wildes, Assemblyman Arnold Brown, Treasurer