Started by a faulty space heater and exacerbated by a malfunctioning self-closing door, the Twin Parks fire was preventable. Lawmakers realize this and recently introduced legislation to make sure it never happens again.
The Jan. 9 blaze at Twin Parks North West, 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. Three lawsuits have already been filed against the building’s property owners Bronx Park Phase III Preservation — a consortium that includes Belveron Partners, the LIHC Investment Group and The Camber Property Group.
On Jan. 25, Democrats U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and Congressman Ritchie Torres announced a package of legislation addressing sprinklers, doors, portable heaters and the powers of the U.S. Fire Administration.
Lt. James McCarthy, president of the FDNY-Uniformed Fire Officers Association, praised the bills.
“I want to applaud the congressman and the senator for this legislation to address some of the issues that caused this fire,” he said. “We need to improve self-closing doors and sprinklers. Those are friends of firefighters. That helps us put fires out and save lives.”
At the press conference in front of Twin Parks North West, 333 E. 181st St., Schumer told the attendees it pained him to think about those who perished in the fire. They were immigrants searching for the American dream and simply wanted to provide for their families, he said.
“The community has said to us do what you can,” the senator said. “We’re here to announce a four-point plan of federal legislation and to take these horrible lessons we learned from what happened and make sure they don’t happen again.”
According to Schumer, a lot can be done to prevent fires at the federal level. This starts with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission mandating space heaters have an automatic shut off. Second, all The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) buildings will be required to have self-closing doors and sprinkler systems. HUD inspectors will also make sure landlords follow these proposed regulations.
Lastly, the legislation would empower the U.S. Fire Administration to investigate fires, as it currently is not permitted to.
Twin Parks and many older federally funded buildings do not have sprinkler systems. Twin Parks was built in 1972 and only had sprinklers in the compactor and laundry rooms. However, according to LaborPress.org, “federal law has required all new public housing to have sprinklers since 1992, but virtually all of New York City’s public housing was built before then.”
“If we can get this done it will set the model for the whole country,” the senator said.
A HUD spokesman told the Bronx Times it cannot comment on Schumer’s legislation, but is doing its best to make things safe for residents.
“HUD requires sprinklers for certain properties covered under the 1992 Fire Administration Authorization Act, which includes new development or certain older properties that are “rebuilt,” but does not require all assisted properties to have sprinklers.,” the spokesman said. “All HUD-assisted housing must also meet state or local housing codes or standards and many require sprinklers in at least some areas of the building.” Assisted properties are properties that receive HUD project-based assistance through the Section 8 rental assistance program.
Torres knows this package of legislation is a step in the right direction, but said that when it comes to fire prevention America is a tale of two cities. Families in wealthy neighborhoods have sprinklers in their buildings, proper heat and don’t need to use space heaters or ovens for warmth. Yet, in the South Bronx and Section 8 housing, that is not the case, Torres said.
In fact, during the past three years the city has issued 70,000 violations for self-closing doors and there are more than 18,000 open violations in 10,000 buildings in the city.
“We have the tools to prevent fires and save lives, all we need is the political will starting in Washington, D.C.,” Torres said. “We know if the space heater had shut off automatically, the fire wouldn’t have begun. Something as simple as self-closing doors would have prevented mass casualties.”
Torres said if a landlord in a Section 8 or HUD building fails to maintain or install self-closing doors or have sprinklers put in, then the federal government should suspend payments to them.
“There’s nothing like withholding money from a landlord to inspire them to follow the law,” the congressman said.
Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson was also in attendance at the press conference. Gibson commended Schumer and Torres for the legislation, but told the Bronx Times there is a much deeper issue at play, the lack of heat in NYC buildings.
Gibson, who grew up using space heaters and ovens for warmth, is angry that many people still live like that today.
“We have an aging infrastructure of housing stock, old boilers that don’t work and buildings like this don’t provide sufficient heat,” she said.
She said one way to improve the quality of heat in the buildings is to focus on window insulation. According to Gibson, many windows are outdated and need to be insulated properly so people don’t feel cold air in their apartments.
Gibson added that while the city could use eminent domain to remove delinquent landlords who don’t take care of their buildings, that could result in years of litigation. Eminent domain would allow the city to take the property from the landlord.
“It angers me that there are families in the Bronx that live like those in Twin Parks,” she said. “A lot of landlords only do the bare minimum and that’s the problem.”
Reach Jason Cohen at [email protected] or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.