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Sisters Scalded to Death in Notorious Landlord’s Bronx Building

The owner of a Bronx building where two young girls were scalded to death by a steam blast from a malfunctioning radiator is a notorious figure who was named the city's fourth-worst landlord last year.

Moshe Piller could not be reached for comment about Wednesday's tragedy, which claimed the lives of 1-year-old Scylee Vayoh and her 2-year-old sister Ibanez Ambrose. The girls' parents are homeless and were placed at the apartment building by the city under a temporary housing program the mayor has denounced as "broken."

Authorities said a valve on the radiator somehow came off and sent an extraordinary amount of steam spewing into the apartment.

"There's going to be a very rigorous investigation," said Mayor Bill de Blasio, who called incident a "freak accident" and a "series of painful coincidences."

Image: Steam deaths
Sisters Ibanez Ambrose, 2, and Scylee Vayoh, 1, died after what authorities described as a "steam condition" caused by a malfunctioning radiator at the city-owned Bronx apartment building. via NBC New York

De Blasio said the Hunts Point Ave. building had been inspected last month and no "major" violations were found. The apartment where the girls died was "perfectly habitable," the mayor said at a press conference.

The mayor said he was unaware of the landlord's history and that there was no reason to think it played any role in the tragedy.

Piller owns apartment buildings across New York City and has made headlines for his treatment of tenants.

The city's public advocate listed him as No. 4 on a landlord watchlist in 2015, noting the Department of Housing Preservation and Development had on its books 1,263 violations in eight of his buildings. He was No. 10 on the public advocate's 2014 list.

"It is unforgivable that the City continues to enter into contracts with providers who do not ensure that these apartments are habitable, and today, we witnessed the lethal consequences of this neglect," Public Advocate Letitia James said in a statement.

Anna Brower, a spokesperson for Public Advocate Letitia James, said Piller did not make the 2016 worst-landlords list "because he had cleared enough violations that he did not meet our threshold."

The Hunts Point Ave. building where the children died was not on the public advocate's list of worst buildings — but city records do show dozens of violations for the property, with more than $10,000 fines over the last decade.

The Buildings Department lists 24 unresolved violations at the Hunts Point address, many for an elevator that inspectors deemed "immediately hazardous." The Housing Department listed 26 open violations before the girls' deaths — for mice and roaches, missing or defective window guards and other problems.

In April, a violation for a busted radiator shutoff valve was issued — one of 11 violations from that inspection — but it was corrected. The radiator issue was in a different apartment from the one where the children were living.

There were no complaints tied to the children's apartment — where the Fire Department said it appears a radiator valve malfunctioned, filling the room with high-pressure steam.

"The babies came out, they were burned all over the body — burned blue, and there was no fire, so steam coming from somewhere," Martiza Morales, a neighbor, told NBC New York.

Image: Bronx
The city-owned Bronx apartment building where two toddlers were killed after a radiator malfunctioned. NBC New York

Problems in some of Piller's other buildings have repeatedly landed him in court and in the news.

In April, 12 low-income tenants of one building in Brooklyn sued Piller, alleging he waged a harassment campaign against them to force them out of their rent-regulated apartments.

The residents had been awarded rent reductions by the state because of substandard living conditions, but Piller allegedly continued to charge them the normal amount and then tried to evict them when they refused to pay.

"We live in a building with bathroom leaks, cracking floors, mice, rats, no working stoves for weeks," tenant Jean Alleyne said in a statement when the suit was announced. "And he steals our money and takes us to court saying we owe him more."

In court papers, Piller said when he bought the building, he thought the rents were legal and didn't know the tenants were being overcharged.

Months earlier, tenants in the Bronx had sued Piller over conditions they said included vermin, a broken elevator and lack of gas, heat and hot water.

In 2010, Piller served an eviction notice on a 92-year-old woman while she was in a rehabilitation facility. The woman, a Holocaust survivor, was waiting for him to repair her caved-in bathroom ceiling so she could return to her home of 40 years, her family said.

The landlord's attorney claimed the eviction was legal because Eckstein hadn't been living in the apartment. She was allowed to return after the case went to court.

Four years later, an 81-year-old stroke victim sued Piller, saying his refusal to let her use a wheelchair-accessible basement entrance had left her a prisoner of her fourth-floor apartment. She later withdrew the suit, though it was unclear why, and she could not be reached for comment.

The Hunts Point Ave. building was being used as a "cluster site" for homeless families. The city had placed five families there, but after Wednesday's accident moved them to other locations.

The use of "cluster sites" — private apartments rented by the city at high rates to house the homeless — has been roundly criticized. In January, Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to phase out the program within three years, calling it "broken."

Last month, the city noted that buildings used as cluster sites accounted for the vast majority of unresolved housing violations in homeless shelters.

De Blasio said the fact that the building was a cluster site had nothing to do with the death of Ibanez and Scylee.