File Under: Preventable tragedies – Bronx Apartment Fire
“The 3-year-old boy in the kitchen screamed. His mother ran in from the bathroom. He had been playing with the knobs of the stove again. With flames jumping through the kitchen, she scooped up the boy and a 2-year-old child and ran into the cold. She left her first-floor apartment door ajar behind her.
The fire flashed out into the hallway of the five-story building in the Bronx on Thursday night. The stairwell became in effect a chimney. The fire climbed up, up, up, seeking air.” 1
So read the New York Times, describing a recent fire in a Bronx apartment building that killed 12 people on December 28, 2017. After tragedies like this, there are always questions – questions about why, what happened, could it have been avoided. After 20 years working in both commercial and residential construction, I always have a keen interest in stories like this. I wonder if someone was a landlord negligent, was the building unsafe, did the tenant disable safety devices? To be clear, I’m not looking to place blame of to pass judgment, only to learn, and hopefully help others avoid these issues in the future.
As I read the NYT article, one thing jumped out at me. Read that first paragraph again: “She left her first-floor apartment door ajar behind her… The stairwell became in effect a chimney.” Wait, I thought, why was the door ajar?
As a Home Inspector, one thing that is always on my radar in residential homes is the door between an attached garage and the living space. I find homes all the time where homeowners have disabled or removed the self-closing devices on this door. Two things need to be true of that door – it has to be fire-rated, and it has to be self-closing. The purpose is simple: if a fire starts in the garage (working on the car, filling the lawnmower, mixing the wrong chemicals by mistake) it will not be able to spread quickly to the home.
Surely, I thought, there has to be a similar code for multifamily apartment buildings, where the odds that someone will start a fire are as high as the stakes when that fire breaks out. After all, a spring-hinge, a common self-closing device, sells for $12 at a big-box store. So, I looked it up…
As it turns out, under the 2009 International Fire Code (IFC) self-closing devices are only required on doors that service stairwells and common areas, to sum up the code.2 Even the NYT article as addresses the issue, “ ‘Close the door, close the door, close the door,’ the fire commissioner, Daniel A. Nigro, said at a news conference on Friday.” To be honest, when I heard that I just kind of cocked my head to the side like a confused dog. Huh? I tried to put myself in that mother’s shoes. There’s a fire in my apartment, I’m fleeing for my life, trying scoop up my kids and escape. STOP, everybody. Wait, while I calmly stare down a life-threatening fire so I can make sure to… close the door?
As it turns out, another major metropolis – Chicago, IL – does have a code amendment to specifically address this issue:
Chicago Building Code § 13-196-170: Self-closing devices required for corridor doors
In residential buildings exceeding four stories in height, all apartment doors opening upon public corridors shall be equipped with approved self-closing devices. In all new and existing single-room occupancy buildings, irrespective of height, all dwelling unit doors opening to public corridors shall be equipped with approved self-closing devices. 3 (emphasis added)
The purpose of these self-closing devices is to prevent the very “chimney effect” that occurred in the Bronx that night. If the door had closed behind the fleeing mother, the fire likely would have been much easier to contain than it was. Hats off to the brave men and women that responded to the fire and put their lives at risk to fight it back. I’m sure they saved many lives that night. How much easier their task may have been but for a small $12 hinge?
So, with all the questions surrounding this tragedy, I settled on the title to this post: could $12 have saved 12 lives? Fire safety is something many of us get lax on over time; we are prone to the “it won’t happen to me” mentality. No one walks through life expecting tragedy around every corner. (Well, at least no one that’s happy). The reality is, these codes and standards are most often put in place over time as a reaction to things that have already happened. They just haven’t happened to you yet. Maybe they never will, but maybe… So, the next time you get annoyed at that self-closing door to your garage because it’s a hassle when you’re unloading groceries, just remember that it might save your family’s life someday.
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