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There are calls for more safety measures after deadly NYC high-rise fire

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

In that recent fire at a Bronx high-rise, opened doors allowed thick smoke to spread to the building's stairwells. And 17 residents died from smoke inhalation. Now, as NPR's Laurel Wamsley reports, there are calls for new fire safety measures that could prevent such loss of life.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: The fire started in Mamadou Wague's apartment at the 19-story building called Twin Parks North West.

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MAMADOU WAGUE: I heard my kiddies scream, said, daddy, it's fire, fire, fire in our room. So I wake up everybody, get out.

WAMSLEY: His family escaped. But their apartment door didn't close behind them, as it's supposed to. Wague is originally from Mali and lives in a three-bedroom duplex unit with his wife and eight children. City officials identified the cause of the fire as a space heater that had been running in Wague's apartment. He says it's typical at Twin Parks to use one for supplemental heat.

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WAGUE: Most people have a space heat in their room. It's cold in the room here.

WAMSLEY: In New York City, landlords are required to keep apartments at a minimum of 68 degrees during the day and 62 at night.

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RITCHIE TORRES: The use of space heaters is often a cry for help and a cry for heat.

WAMSLEY: U.S. Congressman Ritchie Torres represents this area of the Bronx. And he's announced plans to introduce legislation requiring automatic shutoffs on overheating space heaters. A city council member is pushing for stiffer penalties for landlords who ignore violations, while Torres and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand say they'll propose national laws requiring heat sensors in federally subsidized housing, like Twin Parks.

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TORRES: It will enable real-time reports that could be sent to federal, state and city housing regulators that will flag when an apartment has insufficient heat and hot water.

WAMSLEY: City records show there had been four complaints about the heat in three apartments at Twin Parks last year. A spokesperson for the company said that all four heat complaints had been addressed and that they take heat complaints seriously. The building was bought in late 2019 by new owners, an LLC called Bronx Park Phase III Preservation. One of the companies in the ownership group was founded by Rick Gropper, who was a housing adviser on Mayor Eric Adams' transition team. Two residents have already brought a lawsuit against the building's owners in New York state court, alleging negligence. And they've notified the city of an intent to sue it as well. The city's law department says it will review the claim. One question is why the door to Wague's apartment didn't close automatically and slow the fire's spread. Glenn Corbett, associate professor of fire science at John Jay College, says inspectors are never going to be able to make sure that every door closer is working at every time.

GLENN CORBETT: It's an almost impossible task for even public agencies to keep up with this because there's just so many of them.

WAMSLEY: There are features that can make older buildings safer, he says, like a public address system to instruct residents on what to do. And there's one thing that would make an enormous difference, he says, sprinklers.

CORBETT: Sprinklers buy us enormous amounts of safety because they mask over problems with door closers. They mask over problems of propping doors open. It allows to sort of overcome common activities and behaviors and lack of attention that a normal person wouldn't even think about.

WAMSLEY: And sprinklers are heat activated. So they work even if smoke detectors don't. In New York City, new residential buildings are required to have sprinklers. But the rules are different for older buildings like Twin Parks, built in 1972. It doesn't have sprinklers throughout the building, and it's not required to. There have been repeated efforts over the years, after other deadly fires, to require sprinklers in the city's older residential buildings. But adding sprinklers to existing buildings is expensive. And building owners have pushed back hard on previous proposals. Frank Ricci is executive vice president of the Rent Stabilization Association, a group that represents about 25,000 landlords in New York City.

FRANK RICCI: Cost is a big, big factor. But more importantly than that, the disruption of apartments and floors is really the problem here. You have to basically remove the tenants for, probably, several months.

WAMSLEY: And find somewhere for them to live in the interim.

RICCI: As a practical measure, it is really beyond disruptive to tenants' lives.

WAMSLEY: Senator Gillibrand and Congressman Torres say they'll work to secure federal funding to put sprinklers on all buildings. And the U.S.'s top fire official says that despite the difficulties, it is time to add sprinklers to older buildings. Lori Moore-Merrell is the U.S. fire administrator at FEMA.

LORI MOORE-MERRELL: It's almost imperative. This is the type building where we have public housing. It is our lower income population. These are the buildings that need it the most. And so absolutely, we favor retrofitting and having laws in place that require this.

WAMSLEY: She grants that doing so is expensive.

MOORE-MERRELL: But at some point, we as a society are going to have to have a very difficult conversation. And in this time where we're all talking about equities, this is one of those conversations. What is the value of a life?

WAMSLEY: And will this be the fire that makes old buildings safer?

Laurel Wamsley, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BREMER/MCCOY'S "VAGNER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Laurel Wamsley
Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.