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Five Die in 'Fireproof' Building

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Five Die in 'Fireproof' Building

Postby TenantNet » Sun Oct 12, 2008 6:11 am

October 12, 2008
5 Family Members Die in Chelsea Apartment Fire
by Robert D. McFadden
New York Times

Trapped behind a wall of flame and a whirlwind of smoke, five members of a family, including three children, huddled in a bedroom and a bathtub of water but perished Saturday in a Manhattan apartment with only one exit, no fire escape and a long hallway that became a chimney of poison gases, fire officials said.

Beyond jumping from the seventh-floor windows or trying to run through a gantlet of flames and smoke, the victims — a man, a woman and their three young daughters — had no way out of the apartment at 401 West 18th Street, at Ninth Avenue in Chelsea, after the fire broke out in the kitchen just before 6:30 a.m., firefighters said.

The couple and the girls were killed by the smoke, but a 10-year-old boy was found alive in the fire, which officials called the deadliest in New York City since a blaze in a four-story house in the Bronx in March 2007 killed 10 people, including nine children, from two West African immigrant families.

The cause of the Chelsea fire had not been determined, but Fire Department officials said that a smoke detector in the apartment appeared to have been deliberately disabled, perhaps giving the victims less of a chance to escape.

Other factors, including the fire’s point of origin and the layout of the apartment, may have also played a role.

Firefighters arrived on the scene at the Fulton Houses, a sprawling city project, within four minutes of a 911 call. While some battled flames that engulfed the kitchen and spread to a living room and long hallway, others breathing with air packs rushed into the inky blackness of the 20-foot hallway and the three bedrooms and a bathroom at the back of the apartment to search for victims.

They shattered windows and worked quickly. In the bathroom, they found the mother, Delkis Balbuena, 34, with her 8-year-old daughter, Nanny Joa Balbuena, in a bathtub filled with water, where they had apparently tried to seek refuge. A 3-year-old girl, Bet-el Joa Balbuena, was also found in the bathroom, under a sink.

And lying on the floor in a small bedroom at the back, huddled under bunk beds near a window, firefighters found the 40-year-old father, Maschay Joa Valdez, with his 15-month-old daughter, Ruth Joa Balbuena, and his 10-year-old son, whose name was not released, but who was identified by one law enforcement official as Jonzan Joa Balbuena.

“It was not a big bedroom,” Deputy Fire Chief James Daly said. “They were definitely trying to make their way out.”

Neighbors described the family as recent immigrants, the mother possibly from the Dominican Republic and the father possibly from Ecuador, who had lived in the apartment for about a year.

All had been overcome by the poisonous fumes of dense smoke, and were either dead or unconscious when firefighters reached them on the top floor of the seven-story building, fire officials said.

They were carried down to the street, where firefighters and emergency service technicians tried to revive them by performing CPR.

“Everyone was in cardiac and respiratory arrest,” Chief Daly said.

As a plume of smoke hung over the neighborhood and a tangle of firefighting equipment sprawled around the intersection, crowds gathered in the streets on a sun-drenched morning, and neighbors told of heart-rending scenes as the firefighters emerged, one after another, carrying the soot-streaked victims.

Miguel Acevedo, who lives across the street, said he saw firefighters “literally bringing body after body outside. I saw the little boy being carried by the firemen and handed over to the E.M.S. worker. He wasn’t moving at all. He wasn’t breathing. His eyes were closed, and they were trying to revive him, pumping on his chest.”

Mr. Acevedo said it was the saddest day of his life. “The last fireman,” he said, “after the last body came out, he went on his knees and prayed.”

The father was taken to Bellevue Hospital Center, where he was pronounced dead. The other five victims were taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital Manhattan, where the mother and the three girls were pronounced dead. The boy, in extremely critical condition, was transferred to Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx for treatment in a hyperbaric chamber, which increases the oxygen flow to body tissues.

The fire and deaths stunned residents of the Fulton Houses, a complex of 11 low-rise and high-rise red-brick buildings with 944 apartments that was built in 1965. It is home to 2,200 people, a working-class enclave amid the upscale shops and restaurants of Chelsea. The average rent is $373 a month, and many tenants have lived there for decades and say the complex is fairly well maintained and almost never affected by fires. The buildings are described as fireproof, constructed of poured concrete with a brick facing.

As fire marshals investigated the cause of the blaze, Chief Daly noted that there was a smoke detector outside the bedrooms that was hard-wired to the apartment’s electrical system and designed to work in a power failure with backup batteries. But he said fire marshals had found that its wires were disconnected and its 9-volt battery was missing, so it was not working before the fire.

“Apparently someone must have taken that smoke detector down and disconnected the power source,” Chief Daly told reporters. He said the detector had been destroyed by the heat of the fire, although it was 20 to 25 feet away from the point of origin. “That thing was melted down and hanging off the ceiling,” he said.

The detector, he said, “was not operational, so obviously that played a big part.” He said that if the smoke detector had been working and had sounded an alarm at the first hint of smoke, it could have made a difference. “Every second counts in a fire,” the chief said. “I don’t know how fast this fire developed.”

Ann Marie Baronowski, a 17-year resident and president of the Fulton Tenants Association, said each unit of the building has one to three smoke alarms, but fire officials mentioned only one in the burned apartment.

The New York City Housing Authority confirmed that detectors in the building “are hard-wired directly into electrical lines and also have backup batteries,” and said the detector in the apartment was replaced in an annual inspection on Feb. 7, and found in working order during an inspection on April 7.

The layout and location of the apartment, a five-room unit with only one exit and no fire escape, appeared to have been factors. The only door opens onto a small foyer, with the kitchen to the left and a living room to the right. Beyond those rooms, a long hallway leads to three bedrooms and the apartment’s only bathroom at the back.

Chief Daly said the fire broke out in the kitchen of the apartment, which despite its designation, 6A, is on the seventh floor of the building on the northwest corner of 18th Street and Ninth Avenue. It has windows looking north and east. The Fire Department was called at 6:33 a.m., and as the neighborhood awoke to the wailing of sirens, more than 80 firefighters arrived at the scene.

The fire quickly engulfed the kitchen and spread to the living room, blocking the exit, Chief Daly said. “That fire didn’t allow them to get past the door,” he added. “They were trapped in the rear.”

As smoke filled the rooms and flames spread, the family apparently retreated along the hallway to the back of the apartment. “That narrow hallway is now basically a chimney that they’re trying to get down, and they can’t,” Chief Daly said.

Nancy Santiago, 42, who has lived for 35 years in Apartment 6B across the hallway with her mother, who is 70, said she smelled smoke sometime after 6 a.m., apparently through a vent. “I didn’t think anything about it because I thought she had a burning pot again on the stove,” she said. Later, she said, her mother heard the girls next door screaming and pounding on the wall. “But we didn’t think anything of it because it was normal for the girls to always be up screaming, having a ruckus,” Ms. Santiago added.

She went out into the hallway, however, and saw smoke pouring out from under her neighbor’s door. “Her door was black with soot all around the door,” Mr. Santiago recalled. “The hallway was already white.” She collected her family and took everyone out to the street.

Kathy Creer, 45, who lives one floor below the fire scene, said she ran upstairs. “The whole hallway was smoky,” she said. “I started banging on the apartment door, 6A. I didn’t hear no noise from inside. The smoke was coming around the door, and black soot was coming out from beneath the door.”

Firefighters broke in and began fighting the flames with water hoses drawn from a standpipe and hand-held fire extinguishers. As they held the flames at bay, two firefighters plunged through to the rear of the apartment and began searching for victims.

The smoke, Chief Daly said, was overwhelming. “The smoke was so acrid it was burning my eyes,” he said. “Ink black.”

Chief Daly added: “It’s a tragedy.”

The mother and one of the girls were brought out first, Ms. Creer said. Their faces were covered with soot and unrecognizable, she said. She knew more victims were in the burning apartment and said she screamed at the firefighters: “Get the babies!”

Minutes later, the others were brought out. In the street, Mr. Acevedo watched as the 10-year-old boy was carried on a stretcher into the middle of Ninth Avenue, where the emergency technicians labored over him.

“Everyone was in shock, watching the bodies come out,” Mr. Acevedo recalled. “Nobody was actually moving. They all looked lifeless.”

Jeanine Calderon, 39, who lives on the third floor of the building, said she would see Delkis Balbuena standing with her children at the bus stop every morning of the school year until the 10-year-old boarded his bus. “She always said hi,” she said.

“She never left the kids alone; they were always together,” said Ms. Calderon, who has lived in the Fulton Houses about four years. “She was busy all the time taking care of them.”

“She was a good mom, a quiet person,” she added.

Another neighbor, Doris Pagan, 27, who lives a floor below the burned-out apartment, said fire officials arrived to check her smoke detector on Saturday. It was in working order, she said.

“I’m still not coping with it,” she said of the deaths. “It breaks my heart, especially the little babies.”

Reporting was contributed by Manny Fernandez, Jason Grant, Christine Hauser, Jack Healy, C. J. Hughes, Colin Moynihan and Karen Zraick.
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Postby Cranky Tenant » Sun Oct 12, 2008 12:42 pm

A sad reminder to make sure all smoke detectors are in working order and take note of all fire exits, regardless of whether a building is rated "fire proof" or not.
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Postby TenantNet » Sun Oct 12, 2008 12:54 pm

The article raised questions on the layout of the apartment, i.e., from which rooms one can access an exit. This building apparently was considered "fireproof," but that doesn't always mean exactly what it says. Given the recent thread on fire escapes, I thought this was an appropriate issue.
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Postby Cranky Tenant » Sun Oct 12, 2008 10:58 pm

Even if the building was "fireproof" obviously the contents of the apartment, or the inhabitants, aren't. To make matters worse, many public housing projects, such as Fulton Houses, have particularly small windows. It would be very difficult for the elderly or disabled to evacuate via such windows.

I'm not familiar with the apartment layouts in Fulton Houses but it certainly isn't uncommon for post-war apartments to locate the kitchen somewhere between the front door and bedrooms. Maybe apartments such as these, which don't have external fire escapes, should have a fire door to allow egress from the "back" of the apartment. Having fire stairs may not be enough.
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Postby Cranky Tenant » Wed Oct 15, 2008 2:30 pm

NYFD has issued a very informative Press Release on fires and smoke detectors.
Two tragic fires that took the lives of seven people on Oct. 11 and 12 remind all New Yorkers of the importance of having working smoke alarms in their homes.

A deadly fire in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood on Oct. 11, took the lives of five family members, including three children. The fire at 401 W. 18 St. also critically injured a 10-year-old boy.

According to fire marshals, a smoke alarm was present in the family’s apartment, but it was inoperable because the battery had been removed and it had been unplugged from an electric power source.

On Oct. 12, a fire killed a man and his 12-year-old nephew at 1214 Hancock St. in Bushwick, Brooklyn. They did not have a smoke alarm installed in their apartment, fire marshals said.

During National Fire Prevention Week and throughout the year, the FDNY stresses the importance of having working smoke alarms in every home.

Smoke Alarms

Although 97 percent of homes have a smoke alarm, more than one third of them are inoperable because the batteries have been removed or are not working. Most of them have been disabled due to nuisance alarms caused by cooking vapors or steam from the bathroom.

Many smoke alarms now are made with a hush feature that allows the occupant to quiet the alarm for a short period of time, such as while cooking, eliminating the need to remove batteries.

If you are shopping for a new alarm, the FDNY Fire Safety Education Unit recommends photoelectric or photoelectric/ionization smoke alarms, because they are less sensitive to nuisance alarms. They also will alert occupants to smoldering fires more quickly than the more common ionization alarms.

Smoke alarms with a 10-year lithium battery also are recommended for elderly people or people who have difficulty changing the smoke alarm batteries twice a year.

Learn more about safely installing and maintaining smoke alarms in your home.

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