Self-Closing Door Law Failed to Save Bronx Fire Victims

Claudia Irizarry Aponte and Greg B. Smith, THE CITY

This article was originally published on Jan 10 at 9:15pm EST by THE CITY
Fatma Barow lost her 19-year-old cousin in a Bronx residential building fire that killed more than a dozen people, Jan. 10, 2022.
Fatma Barow lost her 19-year-old cousin in a Bronx residential building fire that killed more than a dozen people, Jan. 10, 2022. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In 2018, a year after a fire in a residential building killed 12 in his district, then-Bronx City Council member Ritchie Torres co-sponsored a bill mandating that all residential buildings must have self-closing doors by mid-2021. 

Now a congressman, Torres announced on Monday a federal, state and local task force to examine residential building fire safety standards — including enforcement of the local law mandating self-closing doors he championed in the Council — after a deadly fire killed 17 people in the Twin Parks tower in Fordham Heights.

“We have to ensure that the housing stock is brought to the 21st century when it comes to fire safety — and The Bronx is no stranger to deadly fire,” said Torres, noting that the borough has seen New York City’s four deadliest blazes in the past 30 years.

A Twin Parks tenant reported as recently as last month that their self-closing entry door did not shut: Tenants in unit 6K submitted a complaint to the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development about their door on Dec. 6.

And another tenant told THE CITY that her apartment had door trouble for years.

“That door has never closed by itself,” Twin Parks tenant Yamina Rodríguez, who lived in unit 12J, said in Spanish. “I’ve lived here since 2004 and I’ve always had to close that door myself.” A spokesperson for the property owner, Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC, said they had not received any reports of issues with that door.

Kelly Magee, the spokesperson on behalf of the joint venture that owns the building, said the problem reported Dec. 6 was fixed within 24 hours. The city housing code website reports that inspectors contacted the tenant, who told them the problem was fixed.

On Monday, city officials revised their figure for the number of deaths from 19 to 17, confirming some double-counting initially. But the scope of the catastrophe still made it the worst fire in New York City in three decades, whose victims include eight children dead and another 32 tenants hospitalized.

City fire commissioner Daniel Nigro asserted in a Monday press conference alongside Mayor Eric Adams that the front door in the third-floor apartment where the fire started “malfunctioned” and did not close.

FDNY Chief Daniel Nigro speaks about a deadly fire at a Bronx residential building on East 181st Street, Jan. 10, 2022. Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“The door was not obstructed: The door, when it was fully open, stayed fully open because it malfunctioned,” he said, noting that severe smoke inhalation caused the majority of deaths and serious injuries.

Nigro added that another open door, from a stairwell into a corridor, spread the smoke: “the 15th floor became quite untenable.”

Stiffened Penalties

The 2018 city law requiring self-closing doors built on an existing state statute that had a lesser penalty for violations. 

It amended the city housing code to require all owners of properties with three or more apartments to install and maintain self-closing doors or add devices to existing doors to accomplish that task for all doors providing access to interior corridors or stairs.

Councilmember Joseph Borelli (R-Staten Island) sponsored the legislation in 2018 following a series of Bronx fatal fires that resulted in 15 deaths and 29 injuries.

Borelli did not respond to several phone calls from THE CITY seeking comment.

Before the new law, a door that failed to close was a Class B “hazardous” violation with minor penalties. The new law ramped up the punishment: owners are now supposed to  receive a Class C “immediately hazardous” violation — the most severe — and be required to get up to code within 21 days.

Under the old law, HPD issued 22,000 citations for this violation in the year that ended July 2021, with 18,000 closed as corrected. The department said Monday that following the new law, the checklist for housing inspectors now includes self-closing doors as an item that must be reviewed during inspections.

HPD said at Twin Parks, the most recent self-closing door violations were issued in 2017 and then another in 2019. Both citations were reinspected and observed to be corrected by August 2020, they said.

“Self-closing doors are essential to fire safety, which is why HPD proactively checks to ensure compliance at every apartment it inspects, regardless of the initial complaint,” HPD spokesperson Anthony Proia said. 

“Yesterday’s fire was a devastating tragedy, and our hearts go out to all the families affected by the worst kind of loss.  We urge residents to report malfunctioning doors to property owners or call 311 if issues are not corrected and HPD will respond.”

Asked about the law he co-sponsored, Torres said Monday: “The law is only as good as its enforcement. No matter what law we have, we’re gonna have to ensure that we have enough building inspectors and fire inspectors and housing inspectors to hold landlords accountable. We need rigorous code enforcement.”

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-Bronx) speaks about working with local leaders to help the victims of a deadly fire at a residential building on East 181st Street, Jan. 10, 2022. Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

He added that the task force, which he announced alongside Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson and city Councilmembers Oswald Feliz (D-The Bronx) and Pierina Sánchez (D-The Bronx), will also investigate manufacturing standards for electronic space heaters, as well as sprinklers and smoke alarm systems.

Heat Issues

Several longtime tenants who spoke with THE CITY on Sunday and Monday said Twin Parks had persistent heat and fire safety issues for years.

Rodríguez, 52, said she and her daughters often resorted to using space heaters, because the heat in the building was “inconsistent,” she said in Spanish.

And Miguel Henríquez, 67, told THE CITY on Sunday that “no one” at the building “paid attention” to the building’s fire alarms because they rang at all hours of the day.

The state’s Homes & Community Renewal agency has oversight of the building, monitoring whether it’s in compliance with health and safety regulations. On Monday, spokesperson Brian Butry responded by email to THE CITY:

“HCR is currently conducting an internal review of records related to this building. We will make any relevant information public as soon as it is determined to not interfere with the ongoing FDNY investigation. HCR’s immediate focus has been on the health and safety of the residents and helping them find stable housing while they have been displaced.”

On Monday the owners said there were no open violations for problems with self-closing doors, but they acknowledged that on July 27 maintenance staff had to repair the lock on one of the entry doors for the apartment where the fire started, and checked to make sure the self-closing mechanism functioned properly.

More than 100 families were displaced after one of the deadliest fires in city history took place in a Bronx residential tower, Jan. 10, 2022. Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The building was built in 1972 under the state’s Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program and was purchased in January 2020 by a joint venture that includes Rick Gropper, a member of Adams’ transition committee, and Andrew Moelis, the son of for-profit affordable housing developer Ron Moelis.

Sprinklers are installed only in the basement compactor room and laundry room, circumstances that are allowed under city housing code because its ceilings and floors are poured concrete and it’s fire doors are sufficient to make the building qualify as “non-combustible,” a spokesperson for the owner said.

The scope of the destruction caused by the fire is extensive. Of the 120 units, HPD has issued vacate orders covering 27 apartments with five inspections pending, building records show.

Gambian and Dominican Communities Devastated

Repercussions from the fire devastated the area’s Gambian and Dominican communities, which many Twin Parks residents hailed from.

Dawda Docka Fadera, a Gambian ambassador in the U.S., said in a press conference alongside Adams on Monday that the majority of the 17 victims had roots in the west African country. A representative for the consulate general of the Dominican Republic was also in attendance.

“Our country is currently in a state of shock,” Fadera said.

A fundraiser set up by the Gambian Youth Organization, a 20-year-old community group headquartered just steps away from Twin Parks, had raised more than half a million dollars in direct aid for the fire victims just 24 hours after the disaster.

Momodou Sawaneh, the organization’s founder, said on Monday afternoon that “100%” of the funds would go directly to the victims: “cash payments, transportation, funeral expenses. The only thing we can guarantee is that the funds are going to go to the people who deserve this.”

Shawaneh added the organization is in contact with Adams and Gibson’s offices, who offered to help distribute the funds.

The city set up a donation and shelter site at Monroe College in The Bronx after a deadly fire in a nearby residential building, Jan. 10, 2022. Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

About 50 families were receiving services from the group, the majority of them from Latin America, he said. He said that only “about 10%” of families who had reached out to the group hailed from Gambia.

At GYO’s modest headquarters on East 181st Street, piles of coats, clothes, foods and water bottles grew faster than volunteers, some of them from the Bronx chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, could stock them. Cars unloading supplies often clogged traffic on the narrow street that afternoon.

“This is not limited to one community, but every community,” he said. “We serve everyone.”

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