The multi-family home at 46 E. Second Street in Riverhead in January, the scene of a deadly Nov. 16 blaze that killed a family of five. File photo: Denise Civiletti

The five family members who died in the Nov. 16 fire on East Second Street in Riverhead were trapped in a front bedroom of the third-floor rental apartment, where they had apparently sought refuge from the flames that engulfed the home.

Documents released by the Suffolk County Police Department last week in response to a March 8 Freedom of Information Law request by RiverheadLOCAL tell the story of the tragedy in grim detail.

The fast-moving fire started some time before 10:30 p.m. on the covered front porch of the home, when recently extinguished cigarette butts discarded in a plastic receptacle on the porch sparked a fire in the receptacle, which then ignited a cushioned wicker couch on the porch, according to police records. The couch went up in flames and the flames spread to the shingles and then the exterior of the structure. Fire also damaged a carport on the east side of the building and ignited a car parked underneath.

Flames entered the home through first-floor window and/or door openings on the porch, based on an analysis of fire markings on the structure, the report said. The front entrance to the home is a few steps away from the corner of the porch where the fire started. The flames raced up the common central staircase leading to the second and third floors, according to the report. Fire destroyed the staircase, causing it to partially collapse, and caused severe structural damage that led to a partial collapse of the third floor onto the second floor.

The house on East Second Street engulfed in flames Nov. 16. 2021. Courtesy photo.

Fire also spread up the exterior wall of the turret — the tower-like structure at the southwest corner of the building, where the bodies of the third-floor tenant, Sonia Dinora Rivera Mendoza, 42, her adult sons, teenage daughter and adult nephews were recovered.

All had suffered “extensive burns,” reports released by the county said. The county medical examiner determined that the fire victims died of smoke inhalation, a Suffolk Police spokesperson told RiverheadLOCAL in February.

Rivera Mendoza was identified by dental records, while her sons and nephews were identified by fingerprint analyses and her daughter was identified by a DNA analysis, according to the report.

Occupants of the first- and second-floor apartments were able to evacuate the building without injury, the incident report states.

A tenant in one of the two second-floor apartments, Keith Polchies, 56, discovered the fire after returning from walking his dog that evening after 10 p.m. Polchies, who has lived in the rear second-floor apartment for 18 years, told police he saw a man he knew to be a third-floor resident extinguishing a cigarette in an ashtray and then depositing the contents of the ashtray into a plastic bucket kept on the porch for that purpose. Shortly after returning from his walk, he smelled smoke, according to a written sworn statement given by Polchies to police. He went back outside through the front door and saw the wicker couch in flames. Polchies said he grabbed a fire extinguisher from the hallway inside the entrance but was unable to extinguish the fire.

“I then ran back inside the house and started screaming for everyone to get out,” Polchies said.

His girlfriend, Cindy Wilson, the landlord, Carmela Cannella, who lived in the first-floor apartment, and Loraine Starsiak and her son Adam Starsiak, who shared the second-floor front apartment, all escaped from the burning building through a rear door.

“By that point, the flames were too high to go back out the front door,” Polchies said.

Police were arriving and led them away from the building, he said.

Riverhead Police Officer Anthony Chiaramonte was the first officer on the scene at 10:38 p.m. He saw that the front of the building was “fully engulfed in flames,” according to the reports, so he went to the rear and assisted a resident from the building. He then returned to the front entrance and “attempted to gain access to the second floor, but was turned back by the heat and flames that engulfed the staircase,” the report states.

Chiaramonte reported that he heard “an explosion” and then “several voices screaming and crying from the area of the turret on the southwest corner” of the building. He informed responding firefighters of the location of the cries for help.

The building had a second interior staircase that accessed the second floor, according to the police report. This second staircase was accessed through a closet in the rear of the building, near the first-floor kitchen, the report said. The rear staircase “remained mostly intact,” police said. “The second floor could only be accessed from the rear staircase during this investigation.”

Police used drones equipped with cameras to survey areas of the third floor that could not be safely accessed due to extensive fire damage.

“The most fire damage appeared to be in the area surrounding the main staircase,” police said.

Building owner Carmela Cannella, 71, purchased the property in 1983. She told police she had no mortgage on the property and had no property insurance.

Cannella told police the apartments on the second floor had battery-powered smoke detectors, which was confirmed by tenants, and the apartment on the third floor had hard-wired smoke detectors.

Cannella also told police the apartments had legal rental permits and had been previously inspected, according to the police report. Cannella’s rental permits for the three apartments had expired in March 2020, according to Riverhead Town records.

Suffolk Police Department investigators classified the fire as accidental.

The victims who perished in the fire — Rivera Mendoza, her children, Carlos Cifredo Peñate Rivera, 25, and Andrea Isamar González Rivera, 16, and her nephews, Duglas Edgardo Rivera Aguirre, 27, and Carlos Alberto Ramos Aguirre, 24 — were all natives of Jeréz Jutiapa, Guatemala. Rivera Mendoza had arrived in the U.S. 11 years earlier, and worked in her own cleaning business. Her 16-year-old daughter, Andrea, had arrived in the U.S. only a month before the tragedy, on Oct. 8. She had been separated from her mother at 4 years of age, remaining behind in Guatemala with her grandmother. Andrea had enrolled in Riverhead High School just two weeks before the fire.

Grieving community members placed memorial candles, flowers, notes and balloons outside the charred home on East Second Street in Riverhead where five members of a family perished in a late-night fire Nov. 16. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Community fundraising efforts and the donation of funeral services by Tuthill Mangano Funeral Home in Riverhead, covered the cost of the five funerals and the repatriation of their remains to their native land.

Riverhead Town issued justice court summonses to the property landlord, Cannella, on Oct. 13, barely one month before the fire, for renting the three apartments without rental permits. Previous permits issued for all three apartments had expired 20 months before the fire.

Those charges are still pending. At Cannella’s most recent court appearance last week, her attorney requested the matter be set for trial. Attorney Ed Burke Jr. said the town had made a settlement offer but, “due to civil exposure in this matter, we ask to proceed to trial in this case.”

There is no record of a pending lawsuit brought by the families of the deceased individuals.

Laura Rivera, Sonia’s sister, declined comment on the advice of legal counsel.

Rivera said she has a copy of the police investigation report but has not been capable of reading it. “It’s too painful,” she said.

Riverhead Town, in response to the tragedy, is currently considering code changes to require, among other things, a second means of egress from third-floor rental dwellings.

“We’ll never know the answers, but could a secondary egress on the third floor have made a difference in structure like that,” asked Councilman Ken Rothwell, a longtime volunteer firefighter. He introduced the code amendments now pending before the town board.

Town records for the house, built in 1905 as a single-family residence, do not present a clear picture of the status of the third-floor apartment. See prior story.

Tax records describe the home as a three-family residence going back to 1980 — prior to Cannella’s ownership. The town first adopted a rental dwelling law requiring rental permits in 1980. Cannella herself described the home as a “3-family res.” in a complaint seeking an adjustment of the home’s assessed value in December 1999.

A former town building permits coordinator on Aug. 5, 1997 issued a letter of pre-existing use for the building stating it was a three-family dwelling that existed prior to the implementation the adoption of a zoning code in 1965 requiring building permits and certificates of occupancy.

On June 15, 2000 a town housing inspector issued Cannella an “order to remedy” that stated, “No occupation of a third story is allowed. Illegal apartments to be vacated and returned to storage areas only.” But town rental permit records also show the town issued rental permits for three dwelling units at the address after the June 2000 “order to remedy.” The records from that time are not clear about where those three units were located in the building.

On March 23, 2009, another housing inspector “failed” the third-floor apartment as a habitable unit, stating, “third story does not have C/O [certificate of occupancy] for a dwelling unit. Occupancy and use of such area is prohibited by the code without proper approvals and C/Os.”

Then on April 9, 2009, the same building permits coordinator who authored the 1997 letter of pre-existing use for a three-family dwelling issued a new letter of pre-existing use stating it was a four-family dwelling since prior to June 1965. 

Town records were obtained through Freedom of Information Law requests to the housing inspectors, town attorney’s office, code enforcement office and building department.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on April 19 to add previously reported history of town records for added context and clarity.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.