NEW YORK CITY – A Bronx skyscraper fire that has killed 17 people and injured dozens more raises questions about how toxic smoke has relentlessly moved around the building and renewed calls for Congressional approval of fire safety legislation for older public housing and high aging-high buildings.
Residents of the 19-story building with no fire escapes or sprinklers found themselves trapped on upper floors as smoke moved through stairwells and hallways, where self-closing doors were believed to have blocked the spread of the fire.
A law of 2018 was intended to prevent such a tragedy. After an apartment building fire in the Bronx killed 13 people in 2017, city leaders passed a law requiring self-closing doors that open onto hallways or stairs for apartment buildings. housing, hotels, nursing homes and other housing units. Homeowners were required to install these doors as of July 2021.
The Twin Parks North West complex was up to code and had self-closing doors, according to the owners. Maintenance staff repaired the lock on the entrance door to the fire unit in early July in response to a work order request, and no further issues have since been reported to property management, Kelly Magee , spokesperson for the building owner, Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC. , said Monday.
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But, on Sunday, the door “malfunctioned” as a family left their apartment to flee the blaze, Fire Marshal Daniel Nigro told a press conference on Monday. The fire “started in a faulty electric heater” in a bedroom of a duplex apartment on the second and third floors of the building, he said.
“As they left, they opened the door, and the door stayed open,” said Nigro, who added that nothing was blocking the door to keep it open.
A second door, between a hallway and stairs on the 15th floor, had also been opened, allowing significant levels of smoke to reach that floor, he said.
Self-closing door violations were reported at Twin Parks North West in 2017 and 2019, the New York City Department of Preservation and Housing Development said. The violations have been corrected by 2020 and no self-closing door violations have since been reported at the complex, the department said.
Across the city, the department said it issued more than 22,000 self-closing door violations in fiscal year 2021, and more than 18,000 of those violations have been corrected.
“Yesterday’s fire was a devastating tragedy, and our hearts go out to all families affected by the worst kind of loss,” the department said in a statement. “We urge residents to report faulty doors to homeowners or to call 311 if the issues are not corrected and HPD will respond. “
Karen Dejesus, 54, a resident of the building for 18 years, told USA TODAY that its doors do not close automatically. She said she didn’t know if any of the doors knew.
Dejesus said the fire alarms in the building went off so regularly that it was like “second nature to us”. But when she started to see the smoke and heard people screaming for help, she realized the fire was real.
Other residents echoed Dejesus’ story. Many have told several news outlets that the building has a faulty fire alarm system that often goes off uninvited, leading many to believe Sunday’s alert was another false alarm.
Magee said there were no known issues with the smoke detectors and residents who smoked in the stairwells had already set off the alarms.
It was not immediately clear whether the building violated fire codes. Forensic engineers from the New York City Department of Buildings were on hand to investigate the incident and determine whether the structure meets the requirements of the applicable code, said Andrew Rudansky, a spokesperson for the department.
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The 120-unit skyscraper built in the early 1970s has suffered numerous violations, including complaints about a faulty elevator, and all but two have been resolved, city records show. The heat in the building was working, but some units are drafty, Dejesus said.
At Monday’s press conference, New York City Mayor Eric Adams said the building had “no outstanding violations” for complaints about the lack of heat.
The building has no fire escape stairs, which were phased out for new construction in the city’s 1968 building code.
In accordance with current building codes, the Bronx Tower’s compactor and laundry room are sprinklered, and the building is considered non-combustible, which means it has poured concrete ceilings and floors, in addition 90-minute fire doors, in accordance with regulations, Magee said.
That’s not enough, said Shane Ray, president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association, a tax-exempt organization based in Maryland. Many older public housing and aging skyscrapers were typically built decades ago, before sprinklers were needed, and installing sprinklers would help save lives, he said.
“Fire is fast, but fire sprinklers are faster. They save lives,” Ray said Monday.
Even buildings largely made of concrete and other non-combustible materials still pose a fire hazard to residents, visitors and firefighters, he said.
“What kills occupants and firefighters most of the time,” is the dangerous smoke from televisions, sofas, beds and other building items consumed by the fires, Ray said.
In the aftermath of the Bronx fire and a similar blaze in Philadelphia last week that killed 12 people, Ray’s organization, as well as the International Association of Fire Fighters, the National Fallen Fire Fighter Foundation, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Association of State Fire Marshals, issued a statement calling for congressional action on national fire safety legislation.
Funding measures pending from Congress could help pay for the cost, likely hundreds of millions of dollars or more, Ray said. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development alone estimated that about 570,000 of its social housing units were built before sprinklers were needed.
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The Biden administration’s blocked Build Back Better legislation includes about $ 53 million for security features in public housing, including sprinkler upgrades, Ray said.
In addition, legislation introduced in the House and Senate last month would provide tax incentives for owners of private buildings like the one in the Bronx to install sprinklers, he said.
Asked how many residential buildings over 100 feet have sprinklers, Rudansky, a spokesperson for the New York City Department of Buildings, said the department did not have the data.
In a statement on Monday, New York City Council member Carlina Rivera, who sits on the city’s housing and buildings committee, called on local authorities to address the “root causes” of the disaster.
“The entire responsibility lies with the building management’s failure to comply with legal requirements, from functioning ventilation, sprinkler systems and alarm systems to self-closing doors to adequate and reliable heating,” said Rivera. “It is clear that there is a critical break in the chain of command when it comes to monitoring residential buildings in our city, and tenants – our family, friends and neighbors – are the victims of this neglect. “