Gas Can Left Over From Sandy Fueled Bronx Fire That Killed 7-Year-Old Girl

By DNAinfo Staff  on March 18, 2013 11:10am  | Updated on March 18, 2013 7:01pm

NEW YORK CITY — The massive fire that killed a 7-year-old Bronx girl and critically injured her 3-year-old sister was a tragic accident sparked by a pinched stove cord and fueled by a gas can the family had around because of Hurricane Sandy, sources and fire officials said.

The news about the tragedy came as authorities said Hailey Martinez, the 3-year-old sister of Hazel Martinez, who was killed, remained in critical, but stable condition Monday at New York Hospital.

A stove had recently been installed in the kitchen of the girls' house on the fourth floor of 977 Grant Ave., near East 164th Street. Sources said the fire that erupted just after 3 a.m. Sunday in the appliance's power cord, which was pinched.

The flames then ignited a 5-gallon gas can that was in a nearby cabinet, which was in the house because of Hurricane Sandy. According to the sources, the can was nearly full.

That, in turn, helped ignite the natural gas line in the house.

FDNY officials said that the investigation into the fire had been closed and that the cause was electrical and accidental.

The girls lived in the apartment with their father and three siblings. Hailey's mother, Ruth, was hospitalized in serious condition, according to neighbors.

Firefighters rescued several relatives and the family's dog, Toby.

Five firefighters also suffered minor injuries.

Neighbor Valerie Santiago, 27, said the girls were in a room without access to the fire escape, but fire officials said they were unaware of any issues with fire escapes in the building.

Santiago also said the family may have had the gas can because they own an SUV.

"It would be understandable why they had 5 gallons of gas," she said. "Gas was scarce around here."

Hazel's distraught grandfather, German Martinez, 65, said Sunday that she and Hailey were huge Giants fans who loved to play catch at nearby P.S. 35, where Hazel attended school.

"I loved them with all my heart," he said, speaking about both of his granddaughters. "And I still love them, whether they passed away or not."

 Hailey Martinez, 3, was in criticial but stable condition March 18, 2013, one day after a fire in her Bronx home killed her 7-year-old sister. Hailey is shown with her father, Shaun Martinez.
Hailey Martinez, 3, was in criticial but stable condition March 18, 2013, one day after a fire in her Bronx home killed her 7-year-old sister. Hailey is shown with her father, Shaun Martinez.
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At a shrine near the family's house, he left a heartbreaking message for the girls.

"May Allah bless you both. I love you with all my heart and soul," he wrote. "Sorry grandpa wasn't there to help you and remember every morning when you used to say 'hello grandpa' and again sorry for not being there."

A crisis team offered grief counseling for P.S. 35 students and staff on Monday, a Department of Education spokeswoman said.

The Red Cross helped the Martinez family find temporary housing and also offered the family funds for food, clothing and funeral expenses, a spokesman said.

Hazel's mother, Iris, briefly returned to the building Monday accompanied by supporters, including one who clutched two brown teddy bears against her chest.

Neighbor Mari Garcia said she visited Ruth in the hospital on Sunday.

Garcia brought her fruit but, "she didn't want to eat anything," she said. "She still smelled like smoke."

Neighbor Rosemary Herrera, 54, said that her brother, Pablo Chevere, and his roommate kicked in the door of the apartment to help rescue the children who lived there.

"We were watching TV and then I heard screaming and all I heard was, 'The kids! The kids!' I said, 'I think there's a fire,'" she said. "There's kids in there.

"[They] broke the door down. But couldn't get the door open. They kept kicking and kicking. And then when they finally got it open, that's when the flames really shot out. It was so chaotic. Everyone was looking for their kids."

Johnnie Capeles, 41, was outside the building when he heard people screaming, and he raced up the fire escape to help.

"[The] mom was screaming, 'Help us. Helps us. The girls are burning,'" Capeles said.

Capeles added that he grabbed one of Hazel's brothers from the apartment and carried him to safety.

Jose Larenzo, 22, said that his family, who lives in the building, also tried to help Hazel's family escape from the flames.

Larenzo said that Hazel and her sister were "beautiful kids" who "said 'Hi' to everybody in the morning and on their way home from school."

Hazel, he said, was "so smart and joyful."

"It wasn't just some 7-year-old girl," he said. "It's a girl we all grew up with."

The building's landlord, 977 Grant Towers LLC, did not immediately respond to a call for comment.

 German Martinez writes a note to his granddaughters, Hazel and Hailey Martinez, after a fatal fire at their Bronx building on March 17, 2013.
German Martinez writes a note to his granddaughters, Hazel and Hailey Martinez, after a fatal fire at their Bronx building on March 17, 2013.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

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