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‘They were a beautiful family’; Investigation underway into fire that killed five

Five people died in a massive fire that ripped through an East 2nd Street home in Riverhead Tuesday night, Suffolk County police said.

All five victims were found on the third floor of the 7,000-square-foot home in an initial search of the building once the fire was extinguished, police said. Five additional residents managed to escape without incident.

The fire was was reported at 10:38 p.m., police said. Firefighters arriving at the scene at 46 East 2nd St. found heavy fire in the building with multiple people evacuating and others still trapped inside.

Harold Zapata, a former resident of the home, said the victims were close friends of his. The five victims had all moved to Riverhead from Guatemala and were related to each other. Police and Mr. Zapata, who moved out of the house last month, described them as a mother, her adult son, a teenage daughter and two adult nephews.

“I feel really badly, they were excellent people,” Mr. Zapata said in Spanish. “They were a beautiful family.”

Riverhead Town property tax records show the three-family house is owned by Carmela Cannella of Long Island City, NY. Ms. Cannella did not immediately respond to a telephone message about the incident.

Det. Lt. Kevin Beyrer, the head of Suffolk’ homicide division, said there were no code enforcement issues at the home and the fire is not believed to be criminal at this time. The victims were all trapped in the one apartment on the third floor, but police are still working to determine why that was the case and where the fire started. He said they have a theory on what happened and it was accidental. Smoking is one potential cause, but there are multiple factors being investigated. The second floor had two apartments with two people residing in each one, he said.

“It’s a terrible tragedy,” Det. Lt. Beyrer said, adding that police at the scene couldn’t immediately recall such a deadly fire.

Mr. Zapata at the scene Wednesday. (Credit: Melissa Azofeifa)

In Riverhead, it may be the deadliest fire since five children were the victims of an arson on Harrison Avenue in July 1994.

Bill Sanok, a spokesperson for the Riverhead Fire Department, said he believes about five other people were able to escape the fire, which he confirmed was full involved upon department arrival, which limited the department’s ability to save the house.

“They couldn’t do what they call an interior attack because it was so involved,” Mr. Sanok said. “If there’s any danger of collapse you can’t send firefighters in.”

A second floor resident had left to walk his dog Tuesday evening and began to get ready for bed when he got back. He smelled smoke and then heard across the hall neighbors yelling “fire!” according to Det. Lt. Beyrer.

Multiple people were found dead inside the house. (Credit: Stringer News)

Roughly 100 firefighters were on the scene, Mr. Sanok said. Multiple departments responded to assist Riverhead, including Wading River, Flanders and Eastport. The initial response to the 911 call was within one minute, police said.

A Riverhead firefighter was taken to Peconic Bay Medical Center for treatment of a minor injury and released, Mr. Sanok said. A Riverhead police officer and three civilians were treated at the scene, Stringer News reported.

“Everyone is somber today,” said Mr. Sanok, a 50-year member of the department. “You try to do what you can, but it went up pretty fast.”

Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said the building’s owner lived on the first floor and was among the residents who escaped.

“It’s unfortunate, we lost five residents,” she said.

Ms. Aguiar said there were no violations prior to 2020 when the pandemic hit and the rental permits were in place. A rental permit is for two years and an inspection is done upon renewal. She said a summons was issued Oct. 13 for failure to renew rental permits and is returnable to court Dec. 7.

She said overcrowding was not a factor. 

The Suffolk County Arson Squad is on scene investigating along with the Suffolk Crime Scene and Homicide Squad and Riverhead detectives. The Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s Office is also at the scene.

Det. Lt. Kevin Beyrer, the head of Suffolk’ homicide division, provides updates at a media briefing Wednesday afternoon in Yaphank. (Credit: Brianne Ledda)

“There’s absolutely no sign this was intentional or criminal in any way,” Det. Lt. Beyrer said.

Neighbors remained in shock Wednesday morning.

“I was heartbroken and we didn’t see none of them come out so all night long we just thought, ‘Oh, my God,'” said Dorothy Sander, who lives directly across the street. “We thought nobody made it. It was horrible.”

Irving Reyes, who lives on nearby 3rd Street, described the sounds of sparking electrical cables “like firework sounds.”

“It went from being small to big really fast,” he said.

Richard Wines, chairman of Riverhead’s Historic Preservation Commission, said the house was built in 1907. He described it as “possibly the most beautiful house on the block.”

“The greatest loss and tragedy is the loss of fellow Riverhead locals,” Mr. Wines said.

In a statement, the Riverhead Central School District said Wednesday morning that it was unaware of the identities of those directly impacted in the fire. Members of the district support team will still be made available to meet with any students or staff members as needed throughout the day as the event “can leave some with profound questions and concerns.”

“The district was saddened to learn of the devastating fire that swept through a home in our community last night and understand that this tragedy claimed the lives of several individuals,” the statement said.

Additional reporting by Tim Gannon and Brianne Ledda