By Jason Cohen
One Bronx councilmember is doubling down on previous claims by the local fire union president that if the Twin Parks North West building had been inspected as originally planned and issues with the building’s self-closing doors identified, then the devastating fire that killed 17 in January could have been prevented.
City Councilmember Oswald Feliz, a Fordham Democrat whose district includes the Twin Parks apartments in Fordham Heights, told the Bronx Times that the fire was preventable if proper protocols had been in place, following an April 6 joint meeting of the City Council.
“The fire started due to the use of space heaters, and the fire turned into a tragedy because the self-closing doors were not functioning,” said Feliz, who chairs the Special Committee on Twin Parks Citywide Taskforce on Fire Prevention. “The fire occurred in a fire-proof building, which means that the fire and smoke could have been contained to the single unit. However, due to defective self-closing doors, smoke inundated the building and allowed the fire to turn into the tragedy that we saw 17 individuals lost their lives due to smoke inhalation.”
The Jan. 9 Twin Parks blaze, believed to have been started by a faulty space heater, is the worst fire in the borough since the Happy Land social club arson fire in 1990, which claimed 87 lives. Seventeen people were killed in the Twin Parks fire, including eight children. Since tragedy struck, there have been four separate lawsuits filed against the property owners and the city.
At the joint meeting, the committee on Fire and Emergency Management, the Committee on Housing and Building and the Special Committee on Twin Parks Citywide Taskforce on Fire Prevention discussed a package of legislation that would tighten definitions of “self-closing door”; set minimum temperatures buildings would be required to maintain; require all electric space heaters for sale in the city to be equipped with a thermostat and an automatic shutoff feature; and additional fire safety education and outreach.
Throughout the five hour-plus meeting, council members grilled FDNY and the city Housing and Preservation Development Department (HPD) representatives. Several other city agencies that were requested to attend the meeting, including the Department of Buildings, were absent.
Councilmember Joann Ariola, a Queens Republican, was fiery and looked like a prosecutor in her line of questioning of HPD Commissioner AnnMarie Santiago as to why only 270 building inspectors are employed with 170,000 buildings citywide.
Santiago said that HPD is planning to hire 100 more inspectors, but that HPD only inspects buildings if there is a complaint.
Ariola, who chairs the Committee on Fire and Emergency Management, said HPD” is an absentee landlord.”
“What I would like to see is for HPD to take care of the buildings they are responsible for,” she said.
However, according to HPD spokesman William Fowler, no self-closing door violations have been issued to the Twin Parks building since 2019. Most recently, two violations were issued in 2017 and one in 2019 and these conditions were reinspected, and all were corrected by HPD inspectors by August 2020.
Oren Barzilay, president of the of FDNY EMS Local 2507, told the Bronx Times that the FDNY had the funding to hire 600 inspectors a few years ago, but only hired roughly 400. Then, when COVID-19 arrived in New York City, 94 of those inspectors were reassigned to a COVID task force to hand out masks and make sure restaurants were following the NYC indoor mask mandate. Barzilay said that a scheduled inspection of the Twin Parks building was postponed due to those COVID assignments.
Already understaffed, the coronavirus put fire officials in a tough spot, he said.
“We were already short and now you are taking away more resources with hundreds of buildings to be inspected,” Barzilay said. “I’m not saying it would have prevented the fire and smoke from spreading, but they would have seen the issue with the self-closing doors.”
According to HPD spokesman William Fowler, however, no self-closing door violations have been issued at the Twin Parks building since 2019. Two violations were issued in 2017 and one in 2019 and these conditions were reinspected, and all were corrected by HPD inspectors by August 2020, Fowler said.
Ariola also said another way to improve fire safety is to have five firefighters on all FDNY engines citywide. In 2011, the city reduced staffing for 60 of its engine companies to four firefighters, finalizing the reduction on all 194 citywide engines to four firefighters and one officer. The move was projected to save the city $30 million in overtime costs.
In 2020, Councilmember Justin Brannan, a Brooklyn Democrat, introduced legislation to bring back the fifth firefighter — Ariola hopes it’s approved soon. Currently, only 20 FDNY engines have five firefighters.
“If there’s a fifth firefighter, you’re not taking every engine,” Ariola said.
Feliz told the Times that the city must also create a better system for enforcement of its housing laws. One of the pieces of legislation the council member is sponsoring would require that landlords correct self-closing door violations within 10 days, and that HPD reinspect after that period of time has lapsed. Under his proposal, landlords would be fined $250 to $500 for self-closing door violations and an additional $250 each day that the issue is not rectified.
The councilmember said the hope is the proposed hefty fines for violations hurt their pockets enough that they start to take things seriously and provide tenants with basic living conditions.
“We must hold bad actors accountable by seeking civil penalties for failing to correct conditions,” Feliz said.