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WOMAN SEES NEGLECT AS CAUSING FLOOD THAT FORCES FAMILY TO FLEE

To Justina Olivera, the water seeping into her West Side flat from a vacant upstairs apartment was bad enough.

Then, on Friday, the leak became a torrent. A pipe had burst in a second-floor laundry room, flooding the vacant unit and frightening Ms. Olivera enough to send her packing.

"The basement is full of water. I'm scared to turn on the furnace," she said. "All kinds of wires are underwater."

By noon, the single mother had found another apartment a few blocks away and was preparing to move in a hurry with her daughter, Esteli, 5, her son, Luz, 2, and her sister, Mary.

"It's really, really small, 1 1/2 bedrooms, but I guess I have to take it. I have no choice. We just can't stay here," Ms. Olivera said.

The shame was, the heavy damage to the mostly unoccupied nine-unit building at West Avenue and Hampshire Street could have been avoided, she said.

"The pipes have been leaking for about two months," she said -- since one of the upstairs tenants was sent to prison for possession of crack cocaine that had been seized in Buffalo police raid last fall.

But her landlady and city departments ignored repeated calls about the problem, Ms. Olivera contended.

The absentee owner, Mary Ann Militello, does not pick up the phone, the tenant said.

"The only time she comes around is to collect the rent," Ms. Olivera complained.

She said she complained to the Fire Department and the city Water Department but was given the runaround.

Gary Ziolkowski, director of housing and property inspections, said his agency would have responded but was not informed of the leak.

"We inspected the building on Tuesday, but that was a complaint about the exterior, apparently called in by a neighbor," he said. "We did not hear any complaint about the interior."

By the time city firefighters turned off the water supply to the once-elegant yellow brick building late Friday afternoon, the structure was judged uninhabitable. Ziolkowski dispatched inspectors to make sure that any remaining tenants had left.

According to city records, Ms. Militello, a teacher who lives in Cheektowaga, paid a $100 fine last fall for code violations at the West Avenue address.

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