Fire Termed A Triple Homicide

Thomas MacMillan PhotosAs a dark-colored minivan drove away in the night, flames ripped through a four-unit apartment building on Wolcott Street early Wednesday morning, claiming three lives, police said.

Police are looking for that minivan as they investigate a deadly fire in Fair Haven, at the corner of Poplar and Wolcott Streets. At an afternoon press conference, Mayor John DeStefano said police have determined the blaze was started intentionally and are investigating it as a triple homicide.

The fire broke out around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday at 48-50 Wolcott St. It trapped three of the building’s 15 occupants on the third floor, killing them.

Clinton Avenue School second-grader Quayshawn Roberson, his mother, Wanda Roberson, and another relative perished in what authorities now say was arson. City officials declined to provide details about how they concluded the fire was arson. A person familiar with the investigation said accelerant was located on a back stairway.

Other tenants could have died too—if not for firefighters and neighbors like 18-year-old Jose Marrero and his friends, who caught several women who jumped and four babies who were handed down from the second floor porch.

Eleven people were rescued from the flames and taken to the hospital, where they were treated for smoke inhalation and were being housed by the Red Cross Wednesday evening.

At a 3:30 p.m. press conference at the scene of the fire, city officials offered details of the incident and issued a plea for public assistance.

DeStefano was the first to speak, offering “the city’s condolences to families who lost members.”

Two families lived in the building, he said. The two apartments on the first floor were vacant. The five members of the Ali family lived on the second and third floors at 50 Wolcott St. The 10-member Roberson family lived on the second and third floors at 48 Wolcott St.

The initial fire call came in at 1:30 a.m. DeStefano said. By 1:34 a.m., Engine 10 had arrived from the Lombard Street station. At 1:39 a.m., a second alarm was signaled. Within minutes, two ladders, five engines, and two squads were at the scene. Within 12 minutes, 50 firefighters were battling the blaze, which they knocked down in about 15 minutes, the mayor said.

The apartments had two exits available to them as required, said Fire Chief Michael Grant (pictured). Landings outside the second floor apartments led to exits in the front and rear of the building, he said. Unfortunately, the fire moved quickly to block those exits, he said. “They were trapped by the fire.”

Police Chief Frank Limon said 10 detectives have been assigned to investigate what they are calling a triple homicide.

“Our job is to find justice,” he said.

Lt. John Velleca, head of the major crimes unit, said the investigation is in its preliminary stages. He appealed to the public for help finding a dark-colored minivan that was seen leaving the scene of the fire. People with information can call (203) 946-6304.

Velleca declined to comment on the details of the case. He said the detectives have spoken with over a dozen people so far in their investigation. No one is in custody.

A search of previous calls for police assistance for the location found nothing out of the ordinary, Velleca said.

Building Passed Inspections

The building passed three inspections in the last eight months, the mayor said. In May 2010 it was inspected for rental licensing. In December 2010 and January 2011 it was inspected for Section 8 housing compliance. All three inspections found no violations, which means the house was properly equipped with smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, the mayor said.

The building’s owner, Lili Khorsandi, 62, owns three other properties in the city. Erik Johnson, head of New Haven government’s Livable City Initiative (LCI), said those properties have not been cited for any problems, except a bedbug complaint last year at 48 Wolcott St.

However, all four properties owe back taxes, the mayor said.

Khorsandi lives in Roslyn Heights, New York, according to an internet database. A number listed online for her was not in service. A tenant at a house Khorsandi owns nearby on Chatham Street said she’s a good landlord.

At another of her houses, 349 Peck St. (pictured), no tenants were around to be interviewed. That’s because the house is vacant, abandoned, and boarded-up. Aquamarine paint is peeling from the shingles. A next-door neighbor said it’s been abandoned for at least two years; she said she’s sent her husband to cut the lawn in the past when it gets overgrown.

”Shock And Grief”

As of 9:30 a.m. Thursday, the Wolcott Street fire was out. One fire truck remained. Police had the street blocked off. A fire investigative unit arrived, as did members of LCI, which is responsible for code enforcement.

If the fire department hadn’t been there, they would have died also, said Jim Kottage head of the firefighters union. He said Lt. Steven Durand and two others were among the first firefighters to arrive. They went up on ladders and rescued two people from the second floor, Kottage said.

Chris Hoffman, spokesman for New Haven’s public schools, said that a crisis response team was sent to the school. That team includes “social workers, grief counselors, and others who will help students and staff members cope with their shock and grief,” Hoffman said in a release.

The school canceled Connecticut Mastery Tests scheduled for today.

“I extend my deepest condolences to the student’s family and friends,” said Reggie Mayo, superintendent of schools. “This is terrible tragedy. We will do all we can to help students and staff deal with his loss.”

A neighbor, Geneva King (pictured), knew Quayshawn as “Shawnie.”

King said Shawnie often hung out at her house and played with her grandson. He also helped her bring groceries in after shopping. On Monday, he played touch football with her family. “He just was the sweetest thing,” she said.

King said Shawnie’s cousin rode the bus home with King’s son around 1 a.m. Wednesday after her son got off work at Popeye’s. About a half hour later the house erupted in flames.

A man named George Jones (at left in photo) arrived at the scene around 9:30 a.m.

“Oh no,” he said, bursting into tears. “My kids lived in that house.” He spoke briefly with police, then headed to the hospital.

Firefighters also spoke with a couple (pictured in top photo) who said they had family in the building. They declined to comment further.

The house suffered obvious major damage in the fire. Many homes on Poplar Street have been owned by a succession of absentee landlords and slumlords and real-estate flippers since at least the 1980s. It has been plagued by vacant houses and foreclosures.

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posted by: mark on March 9, 2011  10:56am

Wow horrible news. Talked to a couple of firefighter friends this morning and their crushed. These guys and girls really feel it when lives are lost. They look like they were fighting an uphill battle when they arrived judging from the video. Thank you NHFD.

posted by: streever on March 9, 2011  11:54am

Great work NHFD. What a sad story.

Does anyone know the response time from call on this fire?

posted by: lance on March 9, 2011  11:59am

Why the demonize   the landlord in the last paragraph BEFORE knowing the facts?  Often times people remove the power source from smoke detectors because they set it off when cooking.  Not to mention it is a possible arson so that may be the sole cause of these deaths.  You could have said poplar street is an area known for section 8 housing and frequent large scale drug trafficking. 
That would be factually based.

posted by: Just Common Sense on March 9, 2011  12:51pm

It is not too smart to take even one engine company out of service.This fire happened five blocks from the Lombard station and these guys were right there and did a fantastic job! What happens when the engine company on Whitney is out on a hazmat call and so is engine six or engine four-The next engine company will be coming from Lombard or further. This is the tragic result and all companies were on duty. What happens when they are not? My prayers to the victims of this fire and their families.

posted by: streever on March 9, 2011  1:10pm

Just Common Sense:
Right with you. I ask about the response time NOT because I think the NHFD did anything wrong, but because this fire happened so close to the station and still was a horrible tragedy.

The City is trying to eliminate a fire engine in East Rock, to save money, but I don’t think exposing a neighborhood to additional danger is worth saving a tiny amount of money.

posted by: Betsy Goldberg on March 9, 2011  1:28pm

Condolences to all.  My heart goes out to the injured, and to the families, friends, and classmates of those who perished in this fire.
Marrero and his companions are true neighborhood heroes.  Bravo to them and to the fire personnel who were able to save lives.

posted by: Anderson Scooper on March 9, 2011  2:29pm

A copy of the assessor’s field card for 48 Wolcott Street is here:

A couple of things to note:
1. This property is listed as a 5-family.
2. It is also listed as just two floors. And with a 1900sf footprint, and the field card listing just 3800sf of living area, it’s clear the City has not been taxing this property for any 3rd floor living space. Which makes you wonder if those dormers were always there.

In terms of smoke detectors, this building should have had a hard-wired fire detection system in place, (this is code for 4-Family’s and up.) What that means is that when one smoke detector goes off, they all go off. And hard-wired means centrally powered with batteries just for back-up.

In any case one hopes that the building was in fact up to code. It will be interesting what the LCI FOI’s reveal.

posted by: Anderson Scooper on March 9, 2011  3:37pm

PS—my real condolences to the families of the victims. Just horrible what happened, and hats off to the NHFD for doing what they could. Can’t help but pre-occupied with the question of whether this tragedy was preventable.

posted by: siosion on March 9, 2011  3:46pm

i’d like to see a limit on rental properties placed on out of town residents.  slumlord properties dominate this city’s lower income neighborhoods, and it’s disgusting.  maybe we can look into that

posted by: davec on March 9, 2011  4:54pm

I appears to me that the third story was heavily modified to create living units.  All of the dormers appear to be non-original. 
If the house wasn’t up to code, I’d start asking some hard questions of the Owner.

posted by: just commom sense on March 9, 2011  4:56pm

I am a firefighter in the city and I have been on many ,many calls that have illegal apartments.I always remember the addresses when I see kids. You cant hold it against a person to try to put a roof over their families head. The city has to get after these landlords. I am a landlord also and I live here and would never allow any unsafe conditions. I live in the house and that is what is the difference .I am not in it for the cash.It helps pay the mortgage but if it is going to be unsafe or dangerous I wont rent it and keep it vacant. It all comes down to cash and at what cost? The lost lives of three people.It is so tragic and for what and now they are saying that someone might have started it.

posted by: LtMike on March 9, 2011  6:30pm

This is just terrible and my prayers are with the families and their loved ones.  Great job by Engine 10 and Emergency 1 and all the other companies operating on scene with saving the lives of 2 residents.  For the general public who haven’t experienced a fire first hand, the video from the ‘report it’ feature on WTNH is chilling how the fire took off. Streever, your 100% correct… Seconds count! Especially in the middle of the night when most fires have already established themselves before 911 is activated. Fires that don’t obtain the headlines like something this tragic, get lost as a story.  A couple of months back, on a windy night, a 2 car garage on Townsend Avenue is fully involved at 2 in the morning.  Due to a quick response and getting water on the fire as fast as possible a large 2 1/2 wood house was saved.  You can play the odds something won’t happen, but the FD is like an insurance policy, you pay it and hope you don’t need it.  There are times engines are out and other apparatus cover for them, there is no avoiding that.  On County Street several years back, we suffered a fatality.  Engine 6 was on a medical alarm by the Hamden line and Truck 4 was on scene first to start rescues from the upper floors.  Engine 4, out of Grand Avenue was the first pump on scene.  Response time was fast, but was easily a couple of minutes longer than what it would have been for the first due pump.  There is a lot of data, but data does NOT tell the whole truth.  I can see why the residents being served by Engine 8 are concerned and an incident like this does nothing to diminish those feelings.

posted by: A Corncern Citizen on March 9, 2011  6:59pm


posted by: streever on March 9, 2011  11:12pm

How awful to think that someone would do this on purpose. I hope they are caught swiftly.

posted by: Proud FF on March 10, 2011  12:20am

I must first say that my prayers and thoughts go out to the victims and families.  I pray they can heal spiritually! There’s nothing more I’d rather be than a FF! Unfortunately along with the job comes situations such as this…. even though I was on the other side of the city I was there in spirit. Now with Engine 8 being taken off duty I offer this to the public we serve, regardless of what you read concerning the FD please know that when the alarm hits WE WILL do our job to the best of our ability. We will risk life and limb for you. No fire engine should ever be taken off it puts the public and firefighters at risk, but I have complete faith in our ability to prosper and over come this. When the alarm hits, we are one!

posted by: Anon on March 10, 2011  12:23am

Anderson scooper, I noticed the same thing on the assessor’s card today too. I don’t get it.

posted by: snoopy on March 10, 2011  10:36am

Arsonist..I would be looking at males involved with either females, the boys father and females who were or had been involved with male connected to deceased females. With both 2nd Fl. stairwells ignited it appears to me the intended targets were all on third floor. Have ruled out mini van connection to owner or maintenance for above reasons. Another death penalty case, but without appeals. My condolence to families.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on March 11, 2011  7:24am

And what an extra ironic touch that there is Mayor DeStefano with an Ash Wednesday cross of ashes on his forehead:  “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  What an in-your-face (literally) reminder of the fragility of all life.