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Deadly Bronx fire revealed code deficiencies

Fire fatalities have steadily declined in the U.S., thanks partly to improved building codes and safety measures, but many of the country's big cities are packed with homes that have few safety features.
Fire Safety
The Bronx fire that killed 10 people last week started in this room. New York Fire Department via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fire fatalities have steadily declined in the U.S. since the late 1970s, thanks partly to improved building codes requiring safety measures such as sprinkler systems, multiple fire exits and fire-resistant construction materials.

But a deadly blaze in the Bronx served as a ghastly reminder that many of the country's big cities are packed with homes that have none of these safety features.

The March 7 inferno claimed 10 lives when flames ignited by a space heater ripped through a century-old town house inhabited by two immigrant families from West Africa.

Investigators sifting through the ashes found a bunch of things they wish had been different about the building.

The three-story house lacked a fire escape and had only one stairwell, giving residents no way out once those steps were blocked by flames. There were no sprinklers. The house had only two smoke detectors, neither of which had working batteries or was hard-wired to the electrical system.

The modest home also was crowded with 22 residents, most of them children.

Laxer rules
And yet, none of those deficiencies appeared to violate the city's building code.

As is the case in most cities, one- and two-family homes in New York are more lightly regulated than larger dwellings. At the doomed Bronx house, neither a sprinkler system nor a fire escape was required, city officials said.

There are thousands of homes just like it throughout the city, building experts said Wednesday.

"In most cities, there will be a stock of buildings that don't meet the current standards, and they are accidents waiting to happen," said Richard Custer, a fire safety expert at Arup, a global design firm. "The problem is, a lot of owners don't want to spend the money to bring these things up to speed."

That wasn't the case in the Bronx.

Homeowner Moussa Magassa had recently filed an application with the city to divide his house into three apartments and install sprinklers and a metal fire stairwell. The project had yet to be approved at the time of the fire.

Architect John Ellis, who drew the plans for the work, said Magassa was intent on improving the building — something many owners of the crowded dwellings that house immigrant families never bother to do.

Illegal conversions on the rise
An unknown number of one- and two-family homes have been illegally chopped up into a warren of one-room apartments and rented to poor families struggling to deal with New York's astronomical housing costs.

"You go into these homes, you see the attic occupied. You see the basement occupied," Ellis said. "People are packed into these homes, the place is classified as a one-family."

City building inspectors served 4,256 violation orders for such illegal apartment conversions in 2006, up from 3,142 three years earlier, according to the Department of Buildings.

Glenn P. Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said similar violations occur in the suburbs surrounding the city.

"There's this much larger group out there that is not following the law," he said. "Believe me, there is no incentive for a building owner to say, 'Yes, Mr. Building Inspector, come in and enforce the code and make me install these stairwells and sprinklers.'"

Corbett called the illegal use of single-family homes as apartment houses a "gigantic problem" for fire safety, and he cited recent fatal blazes elsewhere, including one that killed two people last summer in Englewood, N.J.

The National Fire Protection Association, a public safety advocate, said 2,570 of the 3,675 civilian deaths in fires in 2005 occurred in one- or two-family homes.

Those deaths are down considerably from 1978, when 7,710 civilians died in fires, including 4,945 in one- and two-family homes.