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South Street Seaport Workers Chose Not to Pull Fire Alarm During Blaze

By Julie Shapiro on July 18, 2012 1:56pm | Updated on July 18, 2012 3:42pm

SOUTH STREET SEAPORT — Workers at the packed Pier 17 mall did not pull the fire alarm during the massive three-alarm blaze at the the South Street Seaport last Saturday because the company that owns the building does not have a policy that directs them to do so, a rep for the landlord said Wednesday.

Howard Hughes Corp., which owns the mall, directs security staff to report fires to their supervisor and the supervisor to report fires directly to the FDNY but does not require any of the staff to pull the fire alarm and alert customers of the need to evacuate, said Michael Piazzola, senior general manager with Howard Hughes Corp.

Piazzola told a Community Board 1 meeting Tuesday night that the security workers did not want to confuse firefighters by sounding an additional call for help through the alarm system after calling 911, according to several people who attended the meeting.

The three-story pier building also has no public address system, Piazzola added, so the mall was evacuated by word of mouth alone. The shocking revelation stunned those who attended the CB1 meeting.

"Thank God nobody got hurt," John Fratta, chairman of CB1's Seaport/Civic Center Committee, said after the meeting. "We were surprised."

Residents asked Piazzola about the fire alarm after seeing a video shot from the deck of the Clipper City sailing ship, which was docked at the eastern tip of the pier as billows of black smoke rose.

In the video, passengers on the ship shouted to sunbathers on the pier's upper decks, who were unaware of the fire, yelling, "Get out! Get off!"

Scores of people streamed out of the building Saturday, as an electrical fire under the pier sent flames and smoke up through the wooden walkway ringing the pier. No one was hurt in the fire, FDNY officials said.

Piazzola said Wednesday that any security workers could have pulled the fire alarms, which are located in public areas of the mall, but they were not required to do so because the company has no policy on when they ought to be pulled. 

Paul Hovitz, another CB1 member, was among those who asked Piazzola Tuesday night to change the policy and instruct workers to pull the fire alarm any time there is a fire at Pier 17, not just when the Fire Department needs to be notified.

While Saturday's electrical fire was quickly doused, Hovitz worried that a word-of-mouth alarm would not be good enough in a bigger blaze.

"Had this been a more extensive fire that engulfed more of the wooden decking around the pier, this could have been a lot more catastrophic," Hovitz said.

They also asked Piazzola to install a public address system for the three-story building, which was not required by code when the pier was built in the 1980s, but is required in new buildings.

Piazzola told the residents that he would consider their concerns, but he also pointed out that Pier 17 is scheduled to close in early 2013 for two years of construction, to gut the building and convert it into a high-end shopping complex with a rooftop performance space. The new building will meet all current codes, Piazzola said, according to the residents.

"[Piazzola] seemed to be relying on the fact that next year they're redoing the pier," Hovitz said. "But what happens between now and then?"

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story said a Howard Hughes spokesman confirmed the company has a no-alarm policy.

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