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.


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.

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