Huffpost New York

Bensonhurst Fire Arson: Commissioner Salvatore Cassano

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NEW YORK — New York detectives investigating a fire that killed five Guatemalan immigrants over the weekend in a building without enough smoke detectors declared the blaze an arson Monday and urged neighborhood witnesses to come forward, regardless of their legal status.

A man who escaped the Brooklyn building hesitated coming forward because he feared he would be deported, officials said. Police detective Louis Yero said investigators were working with a pastor who is acting as a liaison between investigators and possible witnesses.

A motive remained unclear, but one theory is a personal vendetta, said Paul J. Browne, chief police spokesman. He would not elaborate.

The blaze was the city's deadliest since a 2007 fire killed 10 people, nine of them children, in the Bronx. Saturday's blaze is believed to have started near the front door.

Accidental fires don't usually spark behind front doors, where there are few electrical sockets or other potential fire hazards, Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said. Tests for accelerants were incomplete.

Four men and a woman, all Guatemalan immigrants, died Saturday. The victims' residency status isn't clear.

Luisa Chan, the only victim identified so far, and her husband, Miguel, who escaped, tried to lower their 2-month-old daughter, Maria, out of a window in a car seat, but the baby fell out and suffered a fractured skull. She remained in critical condition Monday but was expected to survive.

Their 2-year-old son, Josias, survived. Chan tearfully told reporters at a church service that his wife's final words were to "take care of our son and daughter."

The families of the other victims had not been officially notified.

The fire started around 2:30 a.m. Saturday. Flames quickly engulfed the three-story building on the commercial strip, consuming a ground-floor Japanese restaurant and two apartments on the upper floors. The stairwell between the floors collapsed, as well as part of the roof, trapping residents, according to fire officials.

As many as 20 people lived in the building, which did not have adequate smoke detectors, officials said.