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Grand Street Tenants Ask Fire Officials Tough Questions

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285 Grand Street - 7 Alarm Blaze
Photo by Leung Photography via Flickr.

Last night, city officials faced pointed questions from tenants about the Fire Department’s response to last Sunday night’s devastating blaze on Grand Street.  The residents had came to an informational meeting in Chinatown, which included briefings from several city agencies.

Officials addressed many of their concerns about short-term housing arrangements, retrieving their belongings from the destroyed buildings and applying for government assistance. But there was frustration that no one was able to answer questions about the events that took place the night of the blaze broke out in 283 Grand, and spread to three other buildings.

No one doubts the heroic work performed by more than 250 firefighters, reacting to the city’s first 7-alarm fire since 2007. Numerous residents were rescued from the flames. 29 firefighters suffered injuries.

But last night, residents said they wanted to know whether more could have been done in the early stages of the fire. One resident said she smelled smoke for an hour before the buildings were evacuated.  During that time, firefighters searched the buildings top to bottom. How, she wanted to know, could they have missed 87-year old Sing Ho, the disaster’s lone fatality. Similar questions were asked by Ho’s daughter, who has hired an attorney and is considering a lawsuit against the city.

The fire marshal leading the investigation said he could not respond directly to the questions about what happened Sunday, because he was not involved in fighting the fire. He did indicate, however, that floors collapsed on multiple levels, forcing the Fire Department to evacuate the buildings prematurely.

Councilmember Margaret Chin called for a full investigation into the handling of the blaze. She said the inquiry should also examine four previous fires in the buildings and whether safety problems were properly addressed. The owner of 283 and 285 Grand, Solomon Scheinfeld, had been cited for numerous building violations. But some city officials have suggested (although not in public) that, relatively speaking, the violations were not particularly numerous or egregious. Scheinfeld put the buildings up for sale last year.

Officials reiterated last night the fire does not appear to have been started on purpose. They said residents who lived on the second floor are being interviewed. But inspectors will not be able to enter the ground floor of 283 Grand (where the fire probably began) until two more levels are removed from the destabilized buildings. He said that could take a few weeks.

Chin is trying to arrange another meeting in which specific questions about the fire can be asked and, hopefully, answered. As of now, here’s what we know:

  • It took at least several minutes to isolate where the smoke was coming from. A source told the Daily News it appeared the fire was “smoldering for a long time” and that “once it reached the building’s inner shafts, it exploded.”
  • At 11:10, a commander on the scene reported that firefighters were “evacuating civilians from the upper floors.”
  • At 11:23, the 911 tapes indicate they were “still evacuating numerous civilians from the upper floors.”
  • At 11:42, it was reported: “we have evacuated all members from the fire building and from exposure 2, and we are in the process of conducting a rollcall.” In the video below, you’ll see firefighters rescuing residents even as they were forced to evacuate themselves:

It remains a mystery exactly why Sing Ho was not rescued. The day after the fire, DNA Info reported he “frantically phoned relatives from his top-floor apartment for help… (saying) nobody’s coming for me.”  Until Ho’s relatives showed up in Councilmember Chin’s office Monday afternoon seeking assistance, officials were apparently unaware all of the residents hadn’t been accounted for. Monday night, Ho’s body was discovered in his apartment. He was reportedly lying in his bed.

Last week, I asked Ho’s daughter (through a translator) whether Ho or any family members called 911. Saying they were acting on the advice of their attorney, the family declined to answer the question. There were three units per floor in 285 Grand. Did firefighters search Ho’s 6th floor apartment?  That is one of the questions Ho’s family and other residents in Chinatown want to have answered.

Funeral services will be held for Ho in New York City this week.

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