Suspicious fires on boardwalk – Fire officials investigate shady blazes on Brighton Beach waterfront

By Stephen Witt

Fire officials are investigating possible links between a suspicious fire that gutted the Winter Garden Restaurant on the Brighton Beach boardwalk last week to a similar fire that gutted Tatiana Restaurant three years ago. The restaurants, which both cater to a largely Russian-American crowd, are right next to each other on the Brighton Beach Boardwalk and Brighton 6th Street and share an adjoining building above it. The January 23 two-alarm blaze that gutted the Winter Garden Restaurant, 3162 Brighton 6th Street, was called in at about 4 a.m. and brought under control a little more than an hour later. Four firefighters along with one resident of the six-story building suffered minor injuries and were treated and released from Coney Island Hospital. “We believe the fire started underneath the boardwalk and extended into the restaurant,” said an FDNY spokesperson. The spokesperson said the fire is currently being listed as suspicious but not arson at this time. However, the spokesperson noted the similarities between last week’s fire and the four-alarm fire that gutted the Tatiana Restaurant, 3152 Brighton 6th Street, on September 17, 2003. That fire, which occurred at about 10:30 p.m., also began under the boardwalk and extended to the boardwalk and restaurant and upper floors of the building, said the FDNY spokesperson. The Tatiana fire was determined to be incendiary and deliberately set. However, a joint investigation between fire marshals and police detectives didn’t reveal many leads or lead to any arrests, and the case was put on a shelf, said the spokesperson. “This [Winter Garden] fire is being investigated and we will probably review some of the instances and the case of the previous fire as the two [fires] seem more than a coincidence,” said the spokesperson. The spokesperson, however, noted the fire is an ongoing investigation. Investigators are looking at a couple of possibilities as they interview people around the scene and conduct lab tests of material found at the site. While the owner of Winter Garden could not be reached, the restaurant manager, who used only the name Igor, said damage to the restaurant was extensive and alleged that much of it was caused by the FDNY while they were putting out the blaze. The city’s Building Department closed the restaurant and nobody knows when it will reopen, Igor said. The owners of Tatiana Restaurant, Tatiana and Michael Varzar, are in Florida for the winter and could not be reached for comment. Tatiana Restaurant manager Leo Blender said he came to the fire scene while it was ongoing. “There have been plenty of fire marshals and police asking questions,” said Blender, adding that he believes the fire may have been started by some homeless people that frequent the boardwalk. “I think some sleep under the boardwalk and I believe they started the first fire and the second one as well,” he said. However, a police source cast some doubt on the theory that the fire was started by a homeless person. “In the summertime we get them, but not now. We haven’t heard anything about the homeless there,” said the police source.