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Two Fires in Bronx Shelter for Homeless Families Raise Alarms

By Patrick Wall | December 21, 2012 12:08pm

LONGWOOD — Back-to-back blazes in a Bronx apartment building have forced dozens of formerly homeless families into temporary lodging for Christmas — and reignited concerns about a city contractor that's been rapped before for allowing tenants to live in "hazardous conditions."

About 40 families were relocated from 941 Intervale Ave. to a nearby shelter on Dec. 14 after old mattresses improperly stored in the building's common areas were set ablaze in two separate incidents Dec. 7 and Dec. 9, officials said.

The more serious, two-alarm fire on Dec. 9 sent two young children to the hospital and injured four adults, according to the FDNY.

In interviews with more than a dozen tenants, residents described a laundry list of chronic problems in the six-story building that is privately owned but leased to house homeless families under a contract with the city's Department of Homeless Services.

Mattresses are left lying for weeks at a time in hallways, tenants said. The fire escapes and extinguishers are faulty and there's no building-wide alarms or sprinklers, they added.

These conditions, tenants continued, left them vulnerable to fires like the two that occurred this month.

“It could have been worse,” said Curtis Thompson, 53, who lived in the building with his wife and five children. “A lot of people could have died.”

The city pays the nonprofit Aguila Inc. to manage 40 units in the Intervale Avenue building, along with more than 20 other facilities for homeless families in The Bronx and Manhattan.

Last fiscal year, Aguila collected about $28.5 million from the city, according to tax records. The company’s CEO is Robert Hess, a former DHS commissioner.

In 2011, an audit by the city comptroller found that Aguila-operated sites had more than 1,700 open code violations related to “hazardous conditions,” including “excessive debris and garbage in building common areas,” which “compromised buildings’ structural integrity and fire safety.”

The audit also cited DHS for lax oversight of Aguila and advised the agency to recoup $1.4 million from the company for unsupported payments and improper expenditures.

DHS pays Aguila more than $3,000 per unit each month to manage the site and provide tenants with apartment and job placement services, according to Rafael Salamanca Jr., district manager of the local community board. Aguila pays a portion of that amount to the building owner, he added.

Aguila referred media inquiries to DHS, which did not respond to questions.

The Intervale Avenue building also contains about a half-dozen rental units separate from those leased by DHS. Representatives for the building's owner, 941 Intervale Realty LLC, could not be reached for comment.

The Dec. 7 fire began on the second floor of the building when a child set a mattress ablaze, according to FDNY officials. That fire was out by the time firefighters arrived about 10:20 p.m. and caused no injuries.

The two-alarm fire that erupted two days later, however, resulted in chaos and destruction.

That blaze began sometime before 5:20 p.m., when a different child ignited another mattress that had been stowed in the open space under the building’s main stairwell for weeks, according to residents and FDNY officials. The 24-hour-guard’s desk is stationed just feet from the stairwell.

Smoke and flames soon tore up the stairwell and spread into the upper-floor hallways.

No building-wide alarm or hallway smoke detectors were in place to alert residents, they said. Instead, other tenants smelled smoke and shouted, “Fire! Fire!” or, once the smoke began to creep under doors, it triggered smoke detectors inside some apartments, residents said.

Two tenants said they tried using fire extinguishers, but found them empty or inoperable.

Jaquan Brooks, 21, said neither he nor his six younger brothers heard any of the commotion. But when their mother smelled a strange odor coming from the hallway, she opened the door to a wall of smoke.

“If we would have been sleeping, who would have known?” Brooks asked. “We would have been dead.”

With smoke and flames filling the hallways, many residents turned to their fire escapes. But multiple people said the escapes were in disrepair, with missing steps and jammed ladders.

“The steps were broken,” said Damian Jones, 32, who lived in the building with his wife and four children. “The ladder took a minute to go down because it was rusty.”

Others said that a fire escape ladder got stuck on the second story, forcing the evacuees back inside.

Two teenage boys said their mother tripped on a damaged fire escape step on the second floor and fell to the ground — an accident that other tenants said they had heard about but not witnessed. The boys said their mother had to undergo back surgery and is still in the hospital.

FDNY officials could not confirm reports about the fire escape or the woman's fall.

Two young children who were injured when the fire reached a top-floor hallway were rushed to the hospital in critical condition, according to FDNY spokesman Frank Dwyer. Two adults were seriously injured and two other adults suffered minor injuries, he said.

Dwyer said city requirements for fire alarms and sprinklers depend on many factors, including the age and size of the building. But items like mattresses should never be kept in hallways, he noted.

“You should not have anything that’s flammable in the hallway or blocking any means of egress,” Dwyer said.

The old mattresses had been removed from rooms and replaced with new ones, but they'd never been taken out of the building and instead were stacked in the  lobby or propped against walls in the upper-floor hallways for long periods, residents said.

Hours after the Dec. 9 fire, tenants were allowed back inside.

The stairwells were singed and the hallway walls charred and layered with soot, tenants said, yet residents were permitted to remain in the building for several days. At one point, someone left disposable facemasks at the security desk for tenants to wear inside.

On Dec. 13, Salamanca, the community board district manager, sent an email to a DHS official registering his concerns about the “horrible conditions” after the fire, including pictures he had taken.

On Dec. 14, five days after the second fire, residents received a typed notice from DHS informing them that “due to health and safety concerns for you our shelter client,” tenants would be transferred to another shelter at 9 a.m. the following morning.

Aguila sent workers to clean the building soon after the fire, according to a contractor who declined to give his name. After the DHS clients left, the workers began more thorough repairs and painting.

For now, the families are staying at a Mott Haven shelter where, without kitchens, they must either eat cold food or leave to buy hot meals, which cannot be purchased with food stamps. They have not been told when they can return to their original building.

On Thursday, former Intervale Avenue tenant Kristin Davis, 26, and her wife lugged plastic bags filled with toys from Family Dollar for their five children into the new shelter.

“We’re going to make it the best Christmas we can,” she said.