In the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 9 Bronx high-rise fire, that killed 17 people—eight of them children—it was the failure of two apartment doors to close automatically as required by the city Building Code that was blamed for the toxic plume of smoke that overcame those who rushed to the building's stairwell.
But Uniformed Firefighters Association President Andy Ansbro said a contributing factor to the high death toll—the worst in the city since the 1990 Happy Land fire killed 87 people in a Bronx social club—was the Fire Department's decision a week earlier to reduce staffing from five Firefighters to four on 20 engine companies, slowing their ability to effectively respond and get water on a blaze.
'Extra Pair of Hands'
"Had this fire occurred on Jan. 2, the first engine that arrived would have had another pair of hands," Mr. Ansbro said. "I am not trying to point fingers. I am trying to say that over the last 50 years, every time that there's a financial downturn, the FDNY gets defunded and loses staffing as well as firehouses. And when times are good, they never put it back."
The Fire Department had invoked a contract clause permitting it to reduce staffing on those engine companies any time the absence rate among Firefighters goes above 7 percent. When it ordered the reduction, the absence rate was 18 percent, much of it caused by the coronavirus.
In the initial press briefing after the blaze, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro insisted the engine-company cuts "played absolutely no role" in the department's response. "It's a challenge, but every one of our units is fully staffed—fire and EMS," he said.
According to the FDNY timeline, the first alarm was at 10:54 am. The first firetruck arrived at the building at 333 East 181st St. in three minutes. At 11:03, the second alarm was sounded.
250 Firefighters There
In short order, dozens of firetrucks and ambulances staffed by 250 firefighters and Emergency Medical Service workers converged on the 120-unit high rise complex.
By 1:26 p.m., the fire was under control.
Firefighters and EMS personnel treated 72 patients at the scene and transported 59 to seven hospitals in the Bronx and Manhattan, more than half of them with life-threatening injuries.
Two sources with extensive FDNY experience credited the quick decision at the fire to tell firefighters who hadn't yet arrived to bring medical equipment instead of their firefighting tools as pivotal in helping to keep the death toll from being even higher.
"It was a very difficult job for our members," Mr. Nigro told reporters. "Their air tanks contained a certain amount of air—they ran out of air, many of our members—and they continued working to try to get as many people out as they could."
The Twin Parks complex was built in the early 1970s. It is privately owned and is a state Mitchell-Lama Affordable housing project whose tenants rely on Federal Section 8 rent subsidies. Many of them are Muslim immigrant families from the West Africa nation of Gambia.
In multiple press reports, tenants were quoted as complaining the building was plagued by poor maintenance and that they regularly relied on space heaters, boiling water, and leaving their stoves on to supplement inadequate building heat.
The FDNY said it last inspected the building May 3, 2021. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development said that self-closing doors were required in any building with at least three apartments or more and that no self-closing-door violations had been issued at Twin Parks since 2019. In August 2020 Housing Inspectors documented the violations had been corrected, the agency said.
The Daily News reported that Twin Parks, was owned "by a consortium of real estate companies called Bronx Park Phase III Preservation" that "has a history of malfunctioning self-closing doors, according to city records. Just last month, the owner—whose head manager, Rick Gropper, is a member of Mayor Adams' transition-team committee on housing—received a complaint from a sixth-floor tenant whose apartment door was not self-closing, records show."
A spokeswoman for Twin Parks' owner told the newspaper all complaints about self-closing doors in the building had been "rectified" before the fire.
Caused by Space Heater
Fire Marshals flagged a malfunctioning space heater in a third-floor apartment as the source of the blaze which, because the door was not closed, raced out of the apartment and into the corridor. It generated a massive plume of smoke that billowed throughout the building via the stairwell, where dozens of residents who sought refuge there were overcome by smoke inhalation and respiratory arrest.
A faulty corridor door on the 15th floor that also did not close helped to create an updraft of the toxic cloud, turning the stairwell into a chimney, according to Glenn Corbett, Assistant Professor of Fire Science at John Jay College.
He noted during a phone interview that he has long advocated requiring all multi-family apartment buildings be retrofitted with sprinklers that can buy time for residents and firefighters, but that real-estate industry lobbyists who cited the costs of such work had headed off legislation.
"They bitch and moan about putting the sprinklers in each apartment, but in these kinds of situations, a corridor sprinkler protection would have done one thing: it would have confined that fire to the apartment," Mr. Corbett said. "That fire inside the apartment would have raged away for several minutes, but what happens is once it started to vent out into the hallway, one or two sprinkler heads would have activated and held it in control for a certain time period. It is possible people would have still died, but I doubt it."
Should Have Stayed Put
The Twin Parks complex is considered a fire-resistant structure, and Commissioner Nigro told reporters the death toll would not have been as high had the tenants stayed in their apartments. An FDNY source who was on the scene said that the apartments on either side of the third-floor apartment where the fire started had not been breached by the fire.
Early in 2014, the playwright Daniel McClung, 27, died in a fire-resistant luxury building on Manhattan's Westside after he and his partner ventured into the hallway to escape a fire that was actually 18 floors below and did not pose an imminent threat to them. That incident prompted then-City Councilman Corey Johnson to call for all buildings six stories or high to be equipped with emergency public-address systems so that firefighters could communicate with tenants.
Mr. Corbett said the issue should be revisited, notwithstanding the 9/11 results when thousands of occupants of offices in the World Trade Center were told to shelter in place. He said that the fire-resistance of a structure was irrelevant if the people in the building were unaware of what to do during a fire.
'Can Manage the People'
"Some of the residents knew to stay in their apartments...but I would bet a lot of the immigrant families were never told to stay in the apartment and had no education in high-rise fire safety," Professor Corbett said. "What a PA system does is upgrade the ability to try and manage the people, so firefighters can communicate with the occupants to say 'we know it is smoky, but please stay where you are.' "
Congressman Ritchie Torres, who represents the district where the blaze occurred, said the tragedy was emblematic of "a Tale of Two Cities," telling WNYC, "If you live in a luxury building in Manhattan, you can take fire safety for granted. But if you live in an affordable-housing complex in the South Bronx, there's no guarantee your building will have a sprinkler system. There is no guarantee you will have functioning fire alarms, smoke alarms, self-closing doors or safety knobs on your stove."
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