Overloaded Power Strip Blamed for Fatal Harlem Blaze

Aug. 19--An overloaded power strip triggered a blaze that engulfed a Hamilton Heights apartment building, killing a 15-year-old girl and wounding several others, the fire commissioner said Tuesday.

The fire, which broke out in a rear first-floor apartment at 512 West 136th near Amsterdam Avenue on Monday evening, quickly spread throughout the six-story building as if it were a chimney, FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said. While he said the power strip had been the direct cause, he singled out the action of others in the building for the roles they played in helping to spread the flames.

"The reason it spread, the reason this young lady lost her life was that the occupant of the apartment on the first floor left the apartment and did not close the door behind them," Nigro said. "The fire quickly spread into the hall and quickly spread upstairs. And that was the cause of loss of life."

The teen, Melisa Mendez, was found on the sixth-floor landing of the building, a law enforcement official said. She was badly burned, said an FDNY spokesman.

In addition, 10 firefighters were injured, two seriously, the spokesman said.

A firefighter suffering from smoke inhalation was hospitalized at St. Luke's Roosevelt with non-life threatening injuries, he said.

There were working smoke detectors in "various parts" of the building, Nigro said.

The fire was initially deemed suspicious, he said, because of the "volume" of the fire and how rapidly it extended. It is now considered accidental.

All 24 apartments in the building were evacuated and dozens of people were displaced, the FDNY spokesman said.

On Tuesday, several people milled around the building, still blocked off by yellow tape, carrying overstuffed bags of belongings they were able to salvage. One person loaded bags into the back of a van.

Marlene Rodriguez helped her mother gather her belongings the day after her apartment was destroyed. She will stay with Rodriguez, who lives in the Bronx.

"The door was basically fried," she said. "It smells horrible in there."

The apartment next door, Rodriguez said, was much worse.

"I think she's very lucky," she said. "There's not even walls in there. I'm just thankful she's OK."

Rodriguez said she was walking to pick up her sons from her mother's fourth floor apartment on Monday when she saw the flames.

"I heard people screaming and running out of the building," she said. "I couldn't even get inside the building halfway. It was so intense -- everything was covered in thick smoke, everything was red."

Lorenza Hernandez, 49, said she noticed the fire when her husband opened the door of their fourth-floor apartment and the smoke rushed in. On Tuesday, her family helped her carry out handfuls of belongings.

"I smelled the smoke," she said. "It's difficult, very difficult."

Hernandez will go to stay with her sister in the Bronx, she said.

In January, 27-year-old playwright Daniel McClung died in the stairwell of his Hell's Kitchen high-rise while trying to escape a fire in the building. The fire in that case was also sparked by an overloaded power chord inside an apartment, authorities have said.

Copyright 2014 - amNewYork, New York

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