By Anna Gustafson
About a dozen women from throughout the city have formed Justice for Bianca, a group calling for an independent investigation into an Oct. 18 fire in Kew Gardens Hills that killed a mother of two who had filed a $20 million sexual harassment suit against a construction company for which she worked.
Bianca Kuros, 44, died in the fire in her fifth-floor apartment in the Pomonok Houses near the intersection of 71st Avenue and Parsons Boulevard, according to the police. Kuros was slated to appear in federal court in Manhattan the day after the fire for a hearing on the lawsuit she filed this summer against her former employer, Total Safety Consulting, according to court documents.
“It made sense to women in the trades that it’s not coincidental that this woman perishes in a fire when her court activities were going to begin,” said Greta Marlin, a Manhattan resident and member of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers.
New York City Fire Chief Marshal Robert Byrnes has said the blaze was an accident and that damaged electrical wires had been found where the fire originated. The Fire Department did not return a request for comment.
“We want an independent investigation,” said Marlin, one of the women who make up the core steering committee of Justice for Bianca. “We want transparency .%u2026 We are concerned that we don’t think Bianca had any idea what she was up against in terms of the darker forces and shadows in our industry. One of the things that every woman in construction faces is having an experience with sexual harassment and a hostile work environment.”
Other than Marlin, those in the group did not want their identities to be released because of fear they would be retaliated against for speaking out against harassment in their field.
Marlin said there are thousands of tradeswomen across the country who have pledged their support for Justice for Bianca, and the group’s Facebook page has more than 150 members.
Kuros, who used her maiden name of Wisniewski to file the lawsuit in state Supreme Court in Manhattan, alleged she was subjected to harassment while working as a construction safety coordinator at JPMorgan’s construction site on Park Avenue in 2007.
When Kuros complained men had made lewd comments to her and groped her, she was replaced by a man, she alleged in the suit. After she filed the suit in July, Kuros began receiving threatening phone calls about it, according to Kuros’ neighbor, Eileen Ramos.
The suit is continuing despite her death, said Kuros’ lawyer, Steven Wittels.
Justice for Bianca held an informational vigil outside the state Supreme Courthouse in Manhattan to distribute information about Kuros’ case earlier this month and Marlin said the group’s members and supporters will continue to attend the case’s future hearings.
It is far too common for women to be confronted with sexual harassment, such as being touched and verbally assaulted and seeing pornographic graffiti in bathrooms and at work sites, according to Marlin.
Francoise Jacobsohn, the project manager of equality works at Legal Momentum, a legal defense and education fund dedicated to advancing the rights of women and girls, said they frequently speak with women who were afraid for their lives while working in trades jobs.
“I know the problems that Bianca was talking about are common,” Jacobsohn said.
Jane LaTour, the author of “Sisters in the Brotherhoods: Working Women Organizing for Equality in New York City,” said women in the construction field have to put up with sexual harassment time and again because there is often no enforcement of current legislation that should protect the workers from this type of behavior.
“The situation with Bianca has really sparked women working in construction in New York City because they’ve experienced this,” she said. “They’ve got photos of horrible pornography on the job. This is not about sex, it’s about territory. It’s about saying you’re not welcome here.”
Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 174.