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Blaze at Uptown Building Leads to Discovery of Unsafe Fire Escapes

By Lindsay Armstrong | November 11, 2014 12:33pm
 Construction at 590 Fort Washington Ave created a dangerous situation with the building's fire escapes.
590 Fort Washington Ave.
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HUDSON HEIGHTS — A weekend blaze at a Fort Washington Avenue building led to the discovery of faulty fire escapes at the building — forcing some residents out on the street until repairs can be made to the dangerous conditions, authorities said.

The fire broke out in an overstuffed storage area in the basement of 590 Fort Washington Ave. about 10:30 a.m. Sunday, according to the FDNY and Department of Buildings.

While no one was hurt in the blaze, the Department of Buildings’ emergency response team inspected the site for structural stability and discovered that a temporary walkway constructed beneath the fire escapes in the rear of the building was too narrow and lacked handrails.

Residents said they were able to exit the building through the front door during the fire and were not forced to use the fire escapes — but the situation could have been much worse, officials warned.

Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who has been on site trying to help residents, said the walkway was a serious concern that needed to be resolved.

“I hope that the DOB is looking very carefully now that tenants have been evacuated and that the DOB and all the agencies take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of all tenants who live in that building,” he said.

The DOB wrote a violation to landlord Classic Equities for having the temporary walkway in a "severe state of disrepair," as well as for excessive storage and debris in the basement area. 

In addition, the DOB filed a partial stop work order because it said site conditions were dangerous to workers. 

The FDNY was still working to determine the cause of the blaze, officials noted, though residents said they were told it was an electrical fire.

The former concrete platforms that the fire escapes exited onto were demolished during construction work to replace the decaying structure, which ran around the entire building, said Jacob Eisenstein, a representative for the building manager.

In the absence of the platform, the contractor installed scaffolding and a metal walkway below the fire escape. However, the DOB found that the walkway was inadequate because it was too narrow and did not have handrails in several places, according to Eisenstein and the DOB. 

In the case of an emergency in which the main exit was blocked, residents would have had to drop several feet onto the 2-and-a-half-foot-wide walkway in order to avoid a roughly eight-story drop to the ground below.

Eisenstein said management was complying with the city’s demand to double the width of the platform and install handrails.

The Department of Housing Preservation and Development was also requiring the owner to provide security guards certified to perform fire watch duties while the platform was reconstructed.

Kelseanne Breder, who has lived in the building for only two weeks, said she was taking a shower at the time of the fire and that her smoke alarm did not sound.

“My water shut off and then I began to smell smoke,” said the sixth-floor tenant, adding she quickly got dressed and made her way downstairs, where firefighters were already entering the building.

“By the time I got to the second floor, I was really moving by instinct because the lights were all out,” Breder explained. “It was difficult to see and to breathe.”

Tenants from 61 of the building's 79 units were allowed back Monday night after electricity, heat and hot water were restored to some parts of the building, said a spokeswoman for Rodriguez's office. Gas has yet to be restored anywhere in the building, she added.

The councilman's office said tenants from 18 units were still not allowed to return due to safety concerns. The fire security guards required by HPD need to be added before these tenants can return, the spokeswoman said. It was not clear how many tenants live in these units.

Eisenstein said that building management was working to address the problem.

Residents — some of whom were staying with friends or receiving aid from the Red Cross as of Monday afternoon — were frustrated by the lack of a timeline for returning to their homes.

Fred Chandler, who has lived in the building for 20 years, said the situation brought up bad memories of a similar fire in the building four years earlier.

"It feels like deja vu," he said Monday afternoon. "At least with that fire they let you come back that night. We didn't have gas for four months. We had to cook on hot plates, but they let us back into the building."