by PRIMROSE SKELTON
A 5-year-old boy playing with matches triggered a blaze that injured 19 people, left 65 homeless and gutted three floors of a stately Hamilton Heights building yesterday, a fire official said.
Nineteen people including 10 firefighters suffered minor smoke inhalation and were taken to area hospitals.
The boy who started the fire was playing in a third-floor apartment, Chief Fire Marshal Louis Garcia said.
The six-story building at 680 Riverside Drive was mostly uninhabitable after the four-alarm inferno, which was battled by 168 firefighters.
The blaze was under control within an hour.
But by then, three quarters of the apartments had been destroyed.
"I'm completely devastated," said Regina Wright, who has lived in the building for 35 years and discovered it aflame as she returned from church. "I raised my children here. This is a complete disaster. This is my home. Everything is gone. Pictures of my family, everything."
One of Wright's neighbors who was trapped on the sixth floor with his two young kids before being rescued by firefighters found much to be grateful for.
"Nothing I lost in that apartment compares to how I would have felt if I had lost my children," said Jamie Bonnet, 35.
He had wrapped his 9- and 6-year-old in wet blankets a precaution against smoke inhalation as the fire raced towards their apartment.
"It was a terrifying wait," he said.
The firefighters eventually broke through a skylight and pulled them to safety.
"I thank God for those firefighters," Bonnet said. "I owe my life and my kids' lives to them."
Another resident, Diane Trummer, had only moved into the building in February and watched powerless as her third-floor apartment was destroyed.
"I finally just finished decorating, but the first thought I had was for my cat, who was trapped in the building," she said.
The cat was rescued by firefighters, all nine lives intact.
The newly homeless were being cared for by the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross.
"We're talking about 16 families," said Jodi Williams, a spokesman for the Salvation Army