Investigators Probe Fire That Claimed Two Bravest

The NYPD is probing whether a 2000 arson blaze led to Sunday's Bronx discount-store floor collapse, in which two firefighters plummeted to their deaths under piles of debris and merchandise, sources said yesterday.

A preliminary examination of the building shows that the post-fire reconstruction from six years ago was "faulty, hugely faulty," a city official told The Post.

Buildings Department engineers and fire inspectors were combing through the ruins of the Walton Avenue building, trying to determine if the renovations made after the July 17, 2000, blaze had left the building structurally compromised.

A 20-by-30-foot section of the store's floor caved in as firefighters were battling a blaze that apparently erupted in a refrigeration unit at the rear of the one-story building. The blaze was not considered suspicious.

Lt. Howard Carpluk, 43, died a day after the collapse killed rookie firefighter and Iraq war veteran Michael Reilly, 25, making it the deadliest day for the FDNY since "Black Sunday," when three firefighters died on Jan. 23, 2005.

An FDNY spokesman said that Battalion Chief Thomas Auer, 47, and Lt. John Grasso, 45, were in stable condition last night at New York Hospital. Firefighter Wayne Walters, 36, was released Monday.

The 2000 blaze - a three-alarmer that caused extensive damage - was declared an arson. Fire marshals determined that it had been set by someone who poured gasoline on the roof.

Although no arrests were made in the case, a source familiar with the investigation said detectives suspected that vagrants who hung out in a nearby park were hired to torch the building.

Another source said that before the case was closed in February 2001, the NYPD had been zeroing in on two possible suspects, but they didn't have enough evidence to build a case against them.

A law-enforcement source yesterday noted that the cause in the 2000 blaze was similar to that in a series of fires set as part of an arson-for-profit scheme for which David Gold, one of the owners of Sunday's fire-ravaged building, was arrested by the feds in 1983.

Because of the similarities, police and fire officials are reviewing the case file for the 2000 blaze.

In the 1983 case, the feds busted Gold and seven others for allegedly operating the arson-profit ring. They were accused of starting 43 fires in 37 rundown, partially occupied apartment buildings in Brooklyn, The Bronx and Manhattan.

Most of the fires were set on rooftops by professional "torches," according to a former agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who had knowledge of the case.

The arson ring was made up of "a group of real-estate developers who looked for buildings in disrepair, buildings the city had foreclosed on for failure to pay taxes," the ex-fed told The Post.

"They would take over the property basically for the taxes due, and then burn them," he recalled. "Then they would submit small insurance claims - so small that the insurance companies wouldn't raise an eyebrow. Sometimes the building was burned twice."

But it wasn't just the insurance money the schemers were after, said the former agent, who spent five years investigating the scam.

"The buildings all had been partially occupied, so in most cases, they burned out families and ended up with a vacant building. And then they could apply for Section 8 HUD financing. The building then became valuable and they flipped it," he said.

"If it was still occupied, they walked away."

Gold, 65, a real-estate lawyer and partner in Davir Realty Ltd., was initially charged with racketeering. He ended up pleading guilty to two misdemeanor charges of mail fraud and was given two concurrent six month sentences, which were suspended. He was also put on three years' probation, fined $200 and required to serve 300 hours of community service.

Gold got the plea deal "because he was a cooperator," providing vital information about another defendant, said the ex-ATF agent.

A former Brooklyn prosecutor echoed the ex-fed's account.

Attempts to reach Gold at his Brooklyn home and Bronx office were unsuccessful yesterday. His lawyer, Jeffrey Hoffman, who handled the 1983 case, said Gold is out of town. Hoffman said he was not aware that the NYPD was re-examining the case file for the 2000 fire.

"I don't know how anyone can say that. There was an investigation into the 2000 fire and nobody claimed there was anything suspicious," he insisted. "If I remember correctly, the appropriate insurance was paid off, and they never pay off if there's any specter of impropriety."

Hoffman said Gold was one of "probably three owners" of the building.

According to records at the New York Department of State, Davir Realty is located at the same address as Gold's Bronx law office.

Hoffman claimed Gold cannot be held responsible if faulty repairs are found to be responsible for Sunday's disaster. He said, "Mr. Gold is a passive investor - it's like saying that I am responsible for IBM's performance because I own 1,000 shares in IBM."

Of the 1983 arson-for-profit case, Hoffman said Gold's "name was only brought up because some of his clients were involved, and when they cast the net, they arrested everybody even remotely involved."

An FDNY source noted that rooftop fires are a favorite of arsonists.

"The reason an arsonist sets fire to the roof is that it usually totals the building," he said. "It's the most expensive part of the building and, more importantly, all the water [poured on by firefighters] goes from top to bottom, causing tremendous water damage."

Buildings Department records show that the owners filed paperwork for repairs to be made to joists and partitions after the 2000 fire. There is no indication that inspectors ever looked at the work. There have been no significant violations on other matters in the building since then.

The 99-cent store that was the scene of Sunday's fatal fire was the latest in a series of discount shops to go up in flames, but officials say they have been unable to determine a pattern because there aren't enough marshals to properly investigate.

"The fire marshals have been reduced to a skeleton-like force since 9/11," said Peter Gorman, president of Uniformed Fire Officers Association. "Their ability to investigate has been greatly reduced."

Since 2002, at least seven fires either began inside or involved 99-cent stores across the city.

Additional reporting by Stefanie Cohen, Zach Haberman, Alex Ginsberg, Heidi Singer and Jana Winter

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