Black Sunday trial decides tenants’ fate

Tenants and landlords from E. 178th Street in Tremont are on trial for the deaths of two firefighters in 2005. Lt. Curtis Meyran and Firefighter Joseph Bellew jumped 50 feet from a burning apartment building. A three-alarm fire erupted at 236 E. 178th Street on January 23 four years ago. Frozen water hydrants played a role in the disaster. Six firefighters leapt out the back of the building.

At 8:30 a.m. on Black Sunday, January 23, 2005, a firefighter clutched his walkie-talkie. “We’re bailing out of here, hurry up,” he warned.

Ten seconds later, “MAYDAY. Get a rope to the roof.” Another 36 seconds. “Two firemen down in the rear.” Another 26 seconds. “We got a whole company down in the rear, they had to jump.”

Lt. Curtis Meyran, 46, and Firefighter Joseph Bellew, 37, died when they leapt 50 feet from the burning fourth floor of a Tremont building fours years ago. Four more firefighters fell and were injured. Another was killed in Brooklyn the same day.

On Monday, January 5, two of 236 E. 178th Street’s tenants and its former landlord went on trial. Prosecutors played the walkie-talkie tape from Black Sunday as Meyran’s widow sobbed in the courtroom.

Tenants Caridad Coste, 46, and Rafael Castillo, 57, along with landlord Cesar Rios, 52, are charged with manslaughter, criminal negligent homicide and reckless endangerment.

According to Bronx prosecutors, Coste and Castillo cut their apartments to rent, erecting a maze of illegal walls that trapped firefighters during the Black Sunday blaze. Rios approved the work, prosecutors say. A spliced extension cord in Castillo’s third-floor apartment sparked the fire, which spread upstairs to Coste’s warren.

Defense attorneys are arguing that other factors led to the firefighter’s deaths, namely poor communication, snow and absent equipment. Water didn’t reach the building until half an hour after the fire started, defense attorneys maintain. And the firefighters weren’t carrying safety ropes they could have used to escape the building.

“My case is very simple,” said Coste’s lawyer Francisco Knipping, who called the firefighters “heroes.” “How was my client to know that her partition, a fire downstairs, a frozen hydrant, burst hoses and two feet of snow outside would combine to hurt anyone? It took the fire department 30 minutes to extinguish a simple fire.”

FDNY, Knipping contends, stopped distributing personal safety ropes years before Black Sunday. Now the ropes are standard issue again.

“It was an unfortunate event and I feel for the families,” Knipping said over the phone. “I see what they’re going through. But the finger is pointed at the wrong people. Who cares who installed the partitions? It doesn’t matter. The partitions didn’t cause the firefighters’ deaths.”

A FDNY report published in 2005 blamed the Bronx tragedy on missing ropes, outdated operational procedures, inadequate training, poor communication, frozen hydrants, water loss and the partitions. The makeshift walls may have blocked a fire escape.

Two juries will decide Coste, Castillo and Rios’ fate. According to reports, Rios’ lawyer will argue that his client tried and failed to have Castillo remove the partitions.

Meyran and Bellew suffered broken bones and internal injuries. The current owner of 236 E. 178th Street has also been charged. The trial is ongoing.

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