By ELLEN MOYNIHAN, ROCCO PARASCANDOLA, THOMAS TRACY and GRAHAM RAYMAN
Published in the New York Daily News on Nov. 11, 2017
A Brooklyn woman angry over her building’s trash-filled halls set a garbage can on fire then kicked it over, triggering a massive blaze that killed two people, police said Friday.
Joanna Mei, 22, was charged with two counts of murder and arson for starting the fire in her three-story brick building on 11th Ave. near 67th St. in Dyker Heights around 7 a.m. Thursday.
Although she first denied smelling smoke, the nursing student gave statements admitting to causing the fire and had a small burn on her right hand, sources said.
Mei told police she was both upset about the trash and about a relative’s death several years ago, sources said.
After setting the fire in the garbage can, she told cops that she changed her mind and tried to put it out by kicking it over, thus spreading the burning rubbish, sources said.
The fire spread to nearby gasoline, which also erupted in flames – accounting for the speed in which it spread, the sources said.
Specially trained dogs from the FDNY K-9 Unit found gas on Mei while police interviewed her, sources said. She was also seen on video leaving the building at 6:45 a.m.
Mei lives on the third floor, cops said. The blaze erupted in a first-floor stairwell. The fire dogs also found possible accelerants in other spots, including the third-floor, where tenants Xi Huang, 58, and Feng Xu, 56, died.
Kevin Wu, 28, who owns Perstar Wireless Inc. next door, said Huang and Xu lived in the building for less than a year. The couple was from Taishan in Guangdong, China.
“When they first moved in they came in to send money home and I saw we’re from the same city,” he said.
In addition to the two dead, a family of four, which included a 3-month-old boy, was taken to Maimonides Medical Center with smoke inhalation. Three firefighters also suffered minor injuries.
Before the flames sparked, neighbors say they heard fighting and yelling.
One woman said she saw Mei acting oddly as the fire raged.
“I remember seeing her running back and forth, here to there, sometimes going around the corner,” Heidi Pugni, 53, recalled. “Now, looking back, it makes sense, her mannerisms and her actions. I thought maybe her family didn’t get out, never even expecting (she was responsible).”
As the flames grew, Mei moved her car from a nearby lot and parked it on the street, Pugni said.
Mei was remanded to jail after her arraignment in Brooklyn Criminal Court Friday.
Her lawyer, Peter Kolb, said Mei’s 10-year-old sister also lives in the building.
“It seems strange that she’d try to kill her sister who’s so beloved to her parents,” Kolb said.
The Carnation Nails salon, the first floor of the building, was also damaged. Owner Sandy Chen returned Friday to pick up a few things, including her cash register.
“We moved here with the clothes on our back. Now I guess we’ll start from square one again,” Chen said.
With ADAM SCHRADER