Year After Deadly Bronx Blaze, a Plan to Combat ‘America’s Fire Problem’
On the first anniversary of the Twin Parks fire in the Bronx that killed 17 people, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will announce a new national plan to combat “America’s fire problem” using investigatory muscle granted by federal legislation that President Biden signed last month.
The legislation will give the United States Fire Administration the power to identify the causes of fires like the one at the Twin Parks North West housing complex in the Bronx, New York City’s deadliest inferno in decades. It also allows the agency, which is part of FEMA, to identify other buildings with similar problems and to issue recommendations.
An investigation by The New York Times found that the fire safety system at Twin Parks suffered a catastrophic failure and that the deaths were preventable. The blaze was sparked by an electric space heater that ignited a mattress, but the victims died of smoke inhalation, not the fire itself. Investigators believe that deadly smoke was able to spread to the upper floors of the 19-story building because of faulty self-closing doors.
Twin Parks, an affordable housing building that was constructed in 1972, had been the heart of a Gambian immigrant community in the Bronx, and most of the people who died in the fire were African immigrants or their children. Like many older residential buildings in the city, Twin Parks had no sprinkler protection. More than a million American households live in public housing units, and many lack lifesaving measures like sprinklers or hard-wired smoke detectors.
People of color, older adults, people with disabilities and those with low incomes are more likely to die in fires, and federal officials said one of their goals is to reduce those disparities.
Lori Moore-Merrell, head of the U.S. Fire Administration, said in an interview that the new investigative authority will allow her agency to ask, “How many other buildings in New York have those same kinds of points of failure?”
Nikki Campbell, 46, a survivor of the Twin Parks fire, lauded the new plan. “Moving forward, we have to make sure things are done properly — these are people’s lives,” said Ms. Campbell, a city Parks Department employee who lived with her four children on the building’s third floor. None of them were hurt, but three of the children jumped out the window to safety. The family then spent nine months living in two hotel rooms before finding an apartment in September.
“You assume things are being taken care of, like fire doors and fire-resistant paint, but they really got to hold these landlords accountable,” she said. “We may have lost 17 lives last year,” she added, “but the improvements they’re making will save thousands, and I can live with that.”
What to Know About Affordable Housing in New York
A worsening crisis. New York City is in a dire housing crunch, exacerbated by the pandemic, that has made living in the city more expensive and increasingly out of reach for many people. Here is what to know:
A longstanding shortage. While the city always seems to be building and expanding, experts say it is not fast enough to keep up with demand. Zoning restrictions, the cost of building and the ability by politicians to come up with a solution are among the barriers to increasing the supply of housing.
Rising costs. The city regulates the rents of many apartments, but more than one-third of renters in the city are still severely rent-burdened, meaning they spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent, according to city data. Property owners say higher rents are necessary for them to deal with the growing burden of taxes and rising expenses for property maintenance.
Public housing. Thousands of people are on waitlists for public housing in buildings overseen by the New York City Housing Authority. But the city’s public housing system, the largest in the nation, has become an emblem of the deterioration of America’s aging public housing stock and is desperately in need of a financial rescue.
In search of solutions. Mayor Eric Adams has presented a plan to address New York City’s housing crisis that includes expanding affordable housing through incentives for developers and preserving existing below-market units. But the mayor’s critics say the budget still falls short of what is needed.
On Tuesday, Ms. Moore-Merrell will travel to New York where, along with Laura Kavanagh, the New York City fire commissioner, she will honor those who died. The next day, Ms. Moore-Merrell will visit the scene of another deadly fire that shocked the country just four days before the Twin Parks blaze, when 12 people, including nine children, were killed in a fire at a rowhouse public housing unit in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia.
“Twin Parks North West is hardly unique. Most buildings in the Bronx lack what experts would consider 21st-century standards of fire safety,” said Representative Ritchie Torres, who represents the district where Twin Parks is and who introduced the bill to give the fire administration investigatory authority.
Ms. Moore-Merrell recalled receiving a call from Mr. Torres as she was leaving Twin Parks a day after the fire. He asked what her agency’s investigation had uncovered, and she explained that the Fire Administration had no investigative power.
“Just like there is a federal process for investigating airplane incidents and cyber incidents, there ought to be a comparable process for investigating fire incidents in the hopes of translating the lessons learned into policies and practices that will prevent future fires and save lives,” Mr. Torres said.
The Fire Administration’s investigatory powers will not be retroactive, so it will not investigate the Twin Parks fire itself. But other communities at risk of fire death will benefit, said Daniel Madrzykowski, director of research for the UL Fire Safety Research Institute. He said local investigators often focus on finding the cause of a fire whereas the federal government can consider why the fire was so deadly.
“Why wasn’t the fire and the smoke contained to the one unit in that fire in the Bronx? Why did it spread throughout the building? Is there a need for a change in building code? Is there a need for a change in building design to prevent that kind of thing from happening in the future?” Mr. Madrzykowski said.
The number of criminal cases that New York City pursues because of fire safety violations has decreased drastically, prompting fears of less than rigorous enforcement just a year after one of the deadliest fires in decades. City officials said they are pursuing lesser civil charges to speed adjudication, but staffing has become a major issue at many city agencies following the pandemic.
“I have yet to see the kind of enhanced enforcement of the fire code that one would expect in the wake of a fire as catastrophic as the one at Twin Parks,” Mr. Torres said, adding that ensuring that self-closing doors are properly functioning is the most cost-effective way to prevent mass casualty fires in high-rise buildings like Twin Parks.
In a report outlining the national fire strategy issued by the Fire Administration last year and reviewed by The New York Times, the agency called for public housing units to be retrofitted with fire sprinkler systems and argued that federal funding was needed to allow public housing authorities to “either retrofit housing units with hard-wired smoke alarms or require the installation of tamper-resistant, long-life, battery-powered smoke alarms.”
Legislation that would require the installation of smoke alarms with 10-year tamper-proof batteries in federally funded public housing not already equipped with hard-wired smoke alarms was prompted by the Fairmount fire and approved in a spending bill signed by President Biden last month.
Although legislation passed in 1992 requires multifamily buildings to be built with sprinkler systems, approximately 570,000 multifamily public housing units constructed before the requirement are still in the system, and a “significant portion” still do not have sprinklers, the Fire Administration report found.
Ms. Moore-Merrell said that too many older buildings that serve as affordable housing are grandfathered in and not required to meet the building codes of new construction because of the myth that the improvements are too expensive.
“Affordable housing in most of our urban cities is unsafe because it does not come up to code,” Ms. Moore-Merrell said.
Also troubling is the increase in fires caused by lithium-ion batteries, particularly those found in e-bikes. New York City Fire Department officials reported that battery fires had killed six people and injured 140 others as of December and that there were 87 more lithium-ion battery fires in the first 11 months of 2022 than there had been in total in the previous year.
“New York, sadly, is leading a trend right now with lithium ion e-scooter and e-bike fires,” saidMr. Madrzykowski, whose group is working with the city on prevention and education around battery fires.
The Daily News reported last month that fire officials discovered an e-bike battery in the apartment where the Twin Parks fire started. Though the lithium-ion battery did not cause the fire, officials believe it added to the heavy smoke conditions, the paper reported.