By Cynthia Koons
A house guest intentionally set a towel on fire in a Bay Terrace house early Sunday, igniting a blaze that killed a 14-year-old Korean girl and left one of her young roommates in critical condition, the Queens district attorney said Tuesday.
The 4 a.m. fire claimed the life of Hanna Yoo, 14, who was sleeping in an upstairs bedroom when the burning towel was dropped on a couch in her livingroom, the DA said.
Ok Ki Gang, 27, of the Palisades in New Jersey was charged with arson and murder Sunday in the death. One of two 11-year-old girls who were seriously injured remained in critical condition at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx Tuesday and the other was in stable condition, Fire Department spokesman Mike Loughran said.
A Fire Department spokesman said Gang ran out of the house with a 14-year-old girl who was staying in the basement and survived the fire. The two girls who were hospitalized and the one who died all were staying in an upstairs bedroom, the spokesman said.
Witnesses said older women who appeared to be the mothers of the young girls arrived at the scene dressed as though they were out for the evening when the fire began.
The fire was called into the Fire Department at about 3:40 a.m. and was under control by 4:13 a.m., Loughran said.
“I heard the woman screaming in the street,” said a neighbor who wished to remain anonymous, referring to one of the apartment’s residents. “The firemen went in really fast, very quickly, to pull the bodies out immediately.”
Meena Yoo and Winnie Chung, both 11 and believed by neighbors to be cousins, were two of five Asian females taken to area hospitals early Sunday morning, police said. Their relationships were unclear, but according to published reports, three mothers and four daughters lived in the apartment.
Gang was arraigned Tuesday in Queens Criminal Court in Kew Gardens on charges of murder, arson, assault and reckless endangerment and faces up to 25 years to life in prison if convicted, according to the district attorney’s office.
“The defendant has been charged with setting fire to a two-family house where she was temporarily residing,” District Attorney Richard Brown said.
While the house had two entrances, it appeared as though the building housed as many as four apartments.
“A 14-year-old girl was killed, three other young women were injured, one of them critically, and the lives of other residents were placed at grave risk. Quick response and effective action by New York City firefighters avoided further loss of life,” the DA said.
Gang allegedly set the fire on both the first floor and basement levels of the apartment where girls ranging in age from 11 to 14 were staying, Loughran said.
No accelerants were used to spread the fire, Loughran said.
Gang was temporarily living in the Bay Terrace home when she lit a towel with a cigarette lighter and placed it on a sofa inside the building, the DA said. She also allegedly set a blaze in the basement of the apartment, a Fire Department source said, and ran out of the downstairs of the apartment with the 14-year-old girl who escaped.
The city Buildings Department had no records of whether or not the apartments were illegally converted.
About 60 firefighters battled the smoky flames, which residents said were not visible from the street.
“There were no flames, just smoke,” neighbor Thaddeus Mayfield said. “When they smashed the windows, black smoke billowed out.”
Gregg and Barbra, a couple who live in the adjacent apartment and asked that their last name be withheld, said they woke up to the sound of sirens outside. Although they have smoke detectors in the apartment they share with their two sons, the alarms did not go off because no smoke entered their home.
They knew the two 11-year-old girls who were taken to the hospital because their son attended school with them.
“I talked to my son about (the fire) and he understands bad things happen,” Gregg said after the family escaped the blaze. He said there was no damage to their apartment except for the lingering odor of smoke.
His wife, Barbra, said she remembers seeing one of the mothers trying to re-enter the burning building in desperation.
“She wanted to go in there, but they wouldn’t let her,” she said.
Neighbors gathered in clusters on 215th Street Sunday morning, some recounting what they had seen and others consoling one another after their perilous escapes.
Gregg said he witnessed the attempted resuscitation of the 14-year-old girl who was killed and said the sight of it was haunting.
“To me, the most striking scene was when they took the girl out and were working on her on the lawn and she wasn’t moving.”
Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.