Irate Houseguest, Asked to Leave, Set Fatal Fire in Queens
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Rafelina Moreno was known for opening the doors of her two-story house in Queens to all who were in need, neighbors and family members said.
On Wednesday afternoon, her house of hospitality turned into one of profound tragedy.
An irate houseguest, whom Ms. Moreno had asked to leave, set a fire that swept quickly through the second-floor apartment where members of her family from the Dominican Republic were staying, the police and fire officials said. The blaze killed a 6-year-old girl and her grandfather and left the girl’s mother and infant brother seriously injured.
“We never thought something like this would happen,” Ms. Moreno’s son, Devin Moreno, said on Thursday, as he stood outside the burned-out residence in East Elmhurst.
The blaze took the life of the man officials believe started it, 23-year-old David Abreu Nuñez.
The other victims were Ema Dominguez, 6, and Claudino “Claudio” Rodriguez, 76. Ema’s mother, Elizabeth Rodriguez, 35, was expected to survive, but her 10-month-old brother, Lian Dominguez, was still in extremely critical condition on Thursday afternoon, according to the police. All of them were relatives of Ms. Moreno who had been visiting from the Dominican Republic.
“It’s a sad afternoon here in East Elmhurst,” Daniel A. Nigro, the city’s fire commissioner, said on Wednesday.
Fire officials said that an “ignitable liquid” had been used as an accelerant to start the fire. Investigators were still conducting tests to see which liquid was involved, but two officials familiar with the investigation said a gasoline can was found on the premises.
Mr. Nuñez had arrived at the house, at 23-49 93rd Street in East Elmhurst, on Monday. He told Ms. Moreno and her family that he needed a place to stay after he had been robbed and assaulted, Mr. Moreno said.
Mr. Nuñez, who was also a native of the Dominican Republic, told the family that he believed he had been attacked because he was gay, Mr. Moreno said. In keeping with Ms. Moreno’s views on hospitality, the family welcomed him to stay temporarily.
The day before he moved to East Elmhurst, Mr. Nuñez had been arrested in the Bronx, where he had been living, for filing a false police report, court records show.
“I was feeling depressed. It was all false. I told the police and the hospital false information,” Mr. Nuñez told the police, according to court records. “Nobody came to my house. Nobody assaulted me.”
Mr. Nuñez’s lawyer could not be reached for comment.
When Ms. Moreno and her family asked their circle of acquaintances about Mr. Nuñez, they learned he may have had mental health issues. In his short time at the house, Mr. Nuñez behaved erratically, they said.
“I told my mom, ‘Mami, there’s something weird here,’” another of Ms. Moreno’s sons, Anthony Moreno, said.
Concerned over Mr. Nuñez’s behavior, Ms. Moreno asked him to leave, officials said. “He lost his head,” Ms. Moreno’s husband, Raul Moreno, said. “That was the result.”
A person living on the first floor of the building called the Fire Department at 4:09 p.m. on Wednesday and reported a smoke alarm was going off upstairs, officials said.
By the time firefighters arrived a few minutes later, the second floor was engulfed in flames. Ms. Rodriguez and Lian had made it out, but were badly burned. The others were still inside the home and did not survive.
That afternoon, Ms. Rodriguez had opted to stay home with the children and their grandfather so the little girl could splash around in an inflatable pool that the family had purchased shortly after she arrived, family members said.
The Rodriguez family had arrived in Queens at the beginning of July and had been planning to stay in the United States until the middle of August, they said.
It was a trip that Mr. Rodriguez, a retired police officer in the Dominican Republic, made every year, his family said. “Every time he came to New York, he would explore a new place,” Mr. Moreno said.
Mr. Rodriguez, who liked drinking whiskey and playing dominoes to relax, would wake up early every morning around 4 a.m., sometimes going grocery shopping for the family. He also helped his daughter care for her infant son and tried to protect the baby even in his last moments.
“He could have stayed in the Dominican Republic,” Mr. Moreno said. “But he came here to take care of the baby, and he died for the baby.”
The trip was a special one for Ema, a playful and charismatic child whom Rafelina Moreno doted on like a daughter, family members said.
Though Ema had turned 6 years old in May, the family had planned to throw her a special birthday bash on Saturday. The party was to be a “Frozen” themed barbecue. The neighbors had been invited, the cake had been ordered and everything was ready to go.
Instead of a jubilant celebration, her family, reeling with heartbreak and shock, is raising money for a funeral.
“She was a living angel,” Anthony Moreno said. “And now she’s a real angel.”
Ashley Southall and Ali Watkins contributed reporting.