December 1, 2022

City Investigators Launch Inquiry Into String of Deadly NYCHA Fires

The city Department of Investigation has opened an inquiry into whether a pattern of maintenance problems has contributed to recent fires at three public housing developments that resulted in death and serious injury to tenants.

The fires erupted at the New York City Housing Authority’s Jacob Riis Houses in the East Village, Wise Towers on the Upper West Side and Mitchel Houses in the South Bronx since November, following a fire at Mitchel last February.

The destruction left by these conflagrations was significant: one tenant died in the Riis Houses fire while another remains hospitalized. A Wise Towers tenant is still in the hospital a month after the blaze there, and a 6-year-old boy died at Mitchel Houses.

“NYCHA is working with DOI during this ongoing investigation,” Rochel Leah Goldblatt, a NYCHA spokesperson, told THE CITY Monday, declining further comment.

Investigators are looking at maintenance problems that tenants say weren’t resolved before the fires, including clogged trash chutes and a jammed apartment door. At least one of the buildings also had elevator problems that created an obstacle for firefighters.

DOI spokesperson Diane Struzzi would not discuss details of the investigation, stating only, “DOI’s investigation into fires at NYCHA buildings — two involving trash chutes and a third involving a door that did not properly open — are ongoing.”

Chimney Effect

One of the two developments with trash chute issues that DOI is looking at is Wise Towers at 133 W. 90th St., a 399-unit development that opened in 1965.

Early on the morning of Dec. 28, a fire broke out inside the trash chute on the 10th floor that caused smoke to course throughout the 19-story building, according to the fire department.

When firefighters arrived, they found only one of two elevators working. While they were there, the second elevator went out of service, forcing them to use the staircase, an FDNY spokesperson said.

Six tenants and one firefighter suffered injuries, with three of the tenants requiring hospitalization, fire officials said. The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but tenants say one condition prior to the fire may have contributed to the smoke being able to spread throughout the building.

For weeks prior to the blaze, they say, a trash chute door on the 10th floor had either been deliberately or accidentally disabled, leaving it wide open. That created a chimney effect that could have contributed to the scope of the inferno — a phenomenon that contributed to the enormous damage of the recent Twin Parks fire in The Bronx, where 17 residents died.

NYCHA owns Wise Towers but in December 2020 turned over management to a private group, PACT Renaissance Collaborative, under a program called Permanent Affordability Commitment Together, New York City’s version of the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program.

“They never learned how to handle the trash chute,” Wise Towers tenant Cynthia Tibbs said of the new private operator. “Before the fire on the 10th floor, the chute has been missing for months.” Tibbs said tenants told management about this, but “nothing happened.”

Seeking Answers

In recent months, THE CITY has reported on tenants at other RAD developments who have complained about unresolved repair needs. In response, NYCHA management has vowed to maintain oversight of apartments even after they’re placed into private management.

Citing the ongoing DOI investigation, NYCHA officials declined to answer THE CITY’s questions about the trash chute door complaints at Wise Towers or the elevator problems the fire department said they encountered there the morning of the fire.

In an emailed response to THE CITY’s questions, Tom Corsillo, a spokesperson for PACT Renaissance Collaborative, wrote:

“While the cause of the fire that impacted 10 units at 133 West 90th Street is still under investigation by the FDNY and Fire Marshall, PRC conducted a review of our fire safety measures following the incident in December and have enhanced the rigorous fire safety protocols that already were in place across all 16 developments in our portfolio — including more frequently inspecting doors to ensure they are self-closing; increasing daily maintenance of compactor rooms and laundry vents to remove garbage and flammable debris; adding signage reinforcing fire safety awareness; and mandating (union-led) fire safety training for building staff. The safety of residents is and always will be our top priority.”

City Councilmember Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan), chair of the oversight and investigations committee whose district includes Wise Tower, said she’d looked into the fire there and had yet to receive answers from the fire department as to the cause and circumstances that may have contributed to the blaze.

“Under this new management, these issues should not be evident,” she said. “You would think that with the development teams being put in place by NYCHA, the conditions in the building should be improving. That’s what concerns me.”

Trash Chutes Suspected

The incident at Wise Towers is the second recent example of a NYCHA fire where trash chutes were implicated.

As THE CITY reported in December, non-working trash chutes may have factored into the destruction wrought by two separate fires over the last year at Mitchel Houses in The Bronx. DOI is also investigating these incidents.

On Nov. 5, a 6-year-old boy, Aidan Hayward, died and 11 tenants were injured in a fire the FDNY says started inside a trash chute on the 20th floor of an East 135th Street Mitchel Houses building. The fire then spread throughout that floor, causing extensive damage.

Several months before, on Feb. 8, 2021, flames ignited inside a 2nd floor compactor at an East 138th Street building at Mitchell Houses. In that case, five tenants and one firefighter suffered smoke inhalation.

The FDNY determined the February fire was caused by a cigarette discharged into the chute, while the cause of the November fire remains under investigation.

In both cases, tenants say they had complained to NYCHA before the incidents about the chutes being jammed with trash and that NYCHA had taken a long time to respond to their repair requests.

A different issue is on DOI’s radar at the Jacob Riis Houses in the East Village, where a deadly fire broke out the morning of Dec. 16.

The fire inside a 14-story Avenue D building — which the FDNY believes was sparked by faulty batteries of several e-bikes stored inside a fourth-floor apartment — forced two teenage tenants to escape through a window and shimmy to safety down a heating unit pole attached to the building.

A man inside the apartment died, and the teens’ mother was gravely injured. The family told the media that the mother tried to escape through the apartment’s front door but the door was jammed, blocking her escape.

Fire officials say the woman — who as of Wednesday remained hospitalized — was found unresponsive near the front door. The firefighters had to break down the door, which appeared to be locked and bolted from the inside.

This article was originally posted on City Investigators Launch Inquiry Into String of Deadly NYCHA Fires

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