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The Fire Next Time

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The Fire Next Time

Few tragedies are “senseless”—or unpreventable. January 8, 2018
Public safety

A 25-year-old mother in the Belmont neighborhood of the Bronx left her three-and-a-half-year-old and two-year-old children unsupervised. The older boy, with a history of setting fires, set the kitchen stove alight and caused a conflagration. The young family escaped, but 13 neighbors, including five members of one family and a soldier rescuing others, perished, as firefighters struggled with a frozen hydrant in attempting to contain a fast-moving blaze. The December 28 fire seems like a senseless tragedy, but it’s not: people do not have to die in fires. New York, like other cities in the advanced world, has saved thousands of lives over the past four decades by learning lessons from each aberration.

Over the last year or so, two other mass-casualty fires, one in London and one in Oakland, dramatized the impact of government failures. Last June, West London’s Grenfell Tower housing complex burned down, killing 71. Britain’s national and local governments did everything wrong here. The national government allowed flammable cladding to cover the exterior of a 24-story building; the local council, which owned the complex, ignoring repeated warnings by Grenfell’s working-class and middle-class residents.

Six months earlier, 36 people perished in Oakland, California—not in government housing, but in a private warehouse. Its owner had entrepreneurially—and illegally—turned the building into apartments and a nightclub. Here, the government failure was a lack of enforcement of basic law covering fire safety, from emergency-exit requirements to materials used. As Reuters has reported, in the two years before the fire, the Oakland police and fire departments had received “dozens of complaints about the warehouse” and had had “multiple opportunities to see that residents were illegally living there in hazardous conditions.” But Oakland authorities didn’t act until it was too late. In mid-2017, they exacted a measure of post-facto accountability, charging the warehouse’s owner and manager with manslaughter.

In the Bronx during Christmas week, the news was grim: the death toll, including a 27-year-old man who died a week after the blaze, made it the city’s deadliest fire since an arsonist set an illegal underground nightclub, also in the Bronx, ablaze in 1990, killing 87. Before the city made its initial reports, it was reasonable to guess that this latest fire, too, must be an example of government failure: a building cut up into illegal apartments, with complaints ignored, perhaps, as was the case with the Brooklyn conflagration that killed five immigrants in 2010. Or, a building with no heat, as in many of the city’s publicly owned housing projects—forcing people to keep their stoves on or to buy dangerous space heaters.

But the early facts seem less conducive to a neat prescription, in this most recent case. The building’s private owner does not appear to be a slumlord. Though the city will conduct an investigation, the privately owned, 26-unit building had just four complaints from tenants to the buildings department over 13 years, including one involving drug-dealing across the street—beyond the landlord’s control. None was fire-safety-related. The housing department recorded six additional violations over two years, including a defective smoke-detector and a defective carbon-monoxide detector. But such violations are not uncommon, and no systematic hazards are evident from the city's data. It appears that the reason that the fire spread so quickly—making smoke- and carbon-monoxide detectors, in this case, not much use—was because the occupant fled her apartment and did not close the door behind her.

The phenomenon of a person evacuating a fire only to leave the door open and allow the fire to spread is not uncommon, and doesn’t discriminate across class or race: in 1998, also during Christmas week, the actor Macaulay Culkin’s mother left the door open to her Manhattan high-rise as she and her other children fled a fire. Like the family in the Bronx, they escaped, but four neighbors died. Some people don’t think straight in a panic.

New York City hasn’t simply thrown up its hands at this human weakness. For decades, the state and city have required apartment owners to install self-closing doors to each apartment. I cannot leave my house and accidentally leave the door open; it will slam shut. Unlike some fire regulations that have saved lives, including rules mandating sprinklers, this rule is retroactive: the Belmont building had to comply, and part of the city’s investigation will involve whether it did. Since the late 1990s, too, New York has run a public-service campaign instructing people to close their apartment doors if they’re fleeing a fire. “You’ve seen the ads—close the door, close the door, close the door,” FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said after last week’s fire, referring to an ad made by an independent radio producer two decades ago and used by the city.

Why, then, did the mother in the Bronx blaze leave a door open? It’s not clear. If the mother failed to understand that she should have closed the door, for example, perhaps the decals on the inside of apartment doors should instruct people leaving in bigger, bolder letters, in several languages, that they must “close the door.” The current decals, mandated by the city, are too wordy and inconsistent. It’s easy to understand how someone who cannot comply with the instructions to “take your keys” and “leave the door unlocked” in a chaotic situation might compensate by leaving the door open so that firefighters can enter. Or perhaps the city needs to pay for ads featuring the “close the door” video, instead of relying on TV and radio stations to run it for free. The city should redesign the campaign, too, for the social-media age, as well as in public libraries and elsewhere where newcomers might see it.

New York has learned plenty of grim but useful lessons from fires. In 1970, 310 New Yorkers died by fire. In 2016, the figure was 48, a historic low. The decrease is not an accident: smoke alarms, carbon-monoxide detectors, reinforced doors, better construction, and public-service campaigns like “close the door” have all saved lives. 

But not enough: nearly two weeks before the Bronx tragedy, flames from a menorah on the sixth day of Hanukkah sparked a nighttime fire that killed a Brooklyn mother and three children. The home’s upper floors—where people slept—did not have smoke detectors. Just before the Bronx blaze, on Christmas Day, a designer in a midtown high-rise died in his apartment, in a fire caused by smoking. Days later, an elderly couple died in a fire in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, in a fire caused by a space heater.

Including the Bronx victims, New York saw 74 fire deaths in 2017, including 27 in December alonea miracle from a 1970s perspective, but far too many, still. Ever-better regulation, compliance, and enforcement will be needed to make sure that the year just passed remains a grim aberration.​

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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