Daughter-in-Law of Bronx Powerbroker Ramon Velez Sr. Dies in Fire
THROGS NECK — The daughter-in-law of Bronx powerboker Ramon Velez Sr. died and three others, including a 5-year-old girl, were critically injured in a predawn blaze Friday — and investigators found no evidence of working smoke detectors, officials said.
The fire broke out about 3:50 a.m. on the second floor of a brick townhouse at 326 Swinton Ave. near Sampson Avenue, sources said.
One of the injured was Ramon Velez Jr., according to family and friends, son of the late Bronx political player and nonprofit magnate, Ramon Velez. Velez Sr. was the founder of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade.
Velez Jr.’s wife, 55, died in the fire, according to family friend Oscar Canto.
Her mother, 75, and the Velezes’ granddaughter were also injured, Canto said.
The woman who died was found on the third floor and rushed to Jacobi Hospital, where she was pronounced dead, officials said. The three others were pulled from the house by firefighters and also taken to Jacobi and treated for smoke inhalation.
“We're just devastated,” said Marisa Velez, Ramon’s sister.
Ramon, who is being treated for smoke inhalation, has burned hands and remains unconscious, she said. He is not yet aware of his wife’s fate, she added.
Congressman José Serrano, a Bronx Democrat, knew Velez Sr. before his death in 2008. He visited Velez Jr. in the hospital Friday.
"The family is there having lost the wife and waiting on the condition of the husband," Serrano said. "It’s a very difficult situation. Everybody there is very much feeling the pain."
He described Velez Jr. as a "good guy, friendly guy, a hard worker," known to many as Ramoncito or Ray Jr., who has headed various Bronx housing agencies and is well known in social-service circles.
"It was like a who’s who of community activism from all over the city," in the hospital waiting room Friday, Serrano said.
Friday's early-morning blaze broke out while most of the neighborhood slept.
Robert Davila, who lives behind the Velez house, said that after he was woken up by his dog's early barking sometime before 4 a.m., he went outside to find flames erupting from his neighbors' windows.
He called 911 and about a dozen trucks and some 60 firefighters arrived, he said and FDNY confirmed.
As flames and smoke poured out of the building, firefighters climbed in through the windows and pulled out the occupants, who all appeared unconscious, neighbors said.
"I heard glass breaking, a lot of fire trucks and a lot of smoke," said Mildred Velez, 82, who lives in an adjacent townhouse but is not related to the victims.
The firefighters tried to resuscitate the victims outside the house, Velez added.
The fire — the cause of which is under investigation — did not spread beyond the first building, Velez said, though she added that she wasn't concerned about her property.
"I was just thinking of them," she said of her neighbors. "Everything can be replaced but a life.”
Velez Sr. ran a small empire of social-service agencies in the South Bronx and, though he only briefly held office as a city councilman in the 1970s, had political connections that stretched from The Bronx to Washington.
Serrano recalled Velez Sr. speaking on Spanish-language radio programs and orchestrating street-corner registration drives in a trailblazing effort to politically empower Puerto Ricans and other Latinos in New York.
"It was an era where our Puerto Rican community had much less power and elected officials," but were trying to become organized, Serrano said, and Velez "was at the forefront of that fight."
State Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., another Velez family friend, surveyed their smoke-charred house Friday.
"That house has historical value," Diaz said. "I met with the old man in that house on many occasions to discuss community problems."
"He was the boss," Diaz added of Velez Sr., noting that one of his anti-poverty programs had helped Diaz afford his college tuition. "You cannot write the Bronx history without mentioning Ramon Velez Sr."
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, officials said.