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Illegal walls turn NYC apartments into firetraps

A New York City trial highlights the fire hazard of temporary walls for illegal apartment conversions — a common problem in a city where rents are high and space is always in demand.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The firefighters were trapped in what amounted to a burning maze: a Bronx apartment illegally divided into extra rooms for the sake of making a buck in this cramped city.

With flames licking at their bodies and black smoke making it nearly impossible to see, the men had little choice but to jump from a fourth-floor window. Two were killed and four others were hurt in the January 2005 fire.

"Next thing you know, that I remember, is hitting the ground 40 feet below," firefighter Jeffrey Cool testified recently in court. "I was in a world of hurt. I was in the worst pain I've ever found myself in."

The former owner of the building, the current owner and two tenants are being tried on manslaughter and other charges, accused of allowing illegal construction that prosecutors say turned the building into a deathtrap.

The case highlights the persistent fire hazard of using temporary walls for illegal apartment conversions — a common problem in a city where rents are high and space is always in demand.

Across the city, such makeshift warrens can be found in neighborhoods popular with college students, recent graduates on their first jobs and immigrants. A lock is often slapped on the extra rooms so they can be rented for extra money.

"Owners complain to me, every door of every bedroom has a padlock on it," said Frank Ricci of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents 25,000 property owners in the city. "It's tremendously difficult for them to gain access to their apartments."

Permit required for walls
To build such walls, a permit is needed from the city's Department of Buildings. If any electrical wiring is installed, an electrical permit is also needed. And the agency recommends working with an architect.

"Illegal walls can put tenants and first responders' lives in danger. Owners and tenants must obtain a permit to safely install a wall," said agency spokeswoman Kate Lindquist, whose department gets thousands of complaints annually related to illegal conversions.

Apartment owners often plead ignorance, saying they have little control over tenants because they rarely see what goes on within the apartments. But renters say owners are just as guilty.

In one example, tenants at Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town, a massive rent-regulated complex in Manhattan, complained to city fire and buildings officials about owner Tishman Speyer Properties advertising "convertible" apartments.

The firm purchased the complex in 2006 for a record $5.4 billion, setting off fears among tenants and some public officials that it was hoping to make a profit by seeking to charge market rates for the rent-stabilized apartments.

Jim Roth of the tenants association said he remembered the deadly fire in the Bronx when the association filed the complaint. "I thought, can they do this? The answer was no, not without a permit," he said.

City officials told the company it couldn't advertise apartments with the suggestion that it was OK to add so-called pressurized walls, and that permits were needed for any changes. Since then, Tishman Speyer has obtained permits, and it declined to comment further.

In the last six weeks of the year, the city vacated at least four buildings in Chinatown because of building and fire safety violations, mostly because the floors were divided into single-room units that had blocked sprinklers and exits and little or no ventilation.

As a result, many of the tenants, mostly immigrants from China, were displaced, though some were relocated by the city. Both owners and tenants are pointing fingers, each claiming the other was responsible for the illegal construction.

Trial focus on 2 apartments
In the case of the building at the center of the manslaughter trial, tenant Rafael Castillo had added two bedrooms to his family's three-bedroom, third-floor apartment and rented them out. The blaze, which started due to a faulty electrical cord, spread to the fourth-floor apartment of Caridad Coste, who had also built extra rooms.

The former owner, Cesar Rios, has been charged along with the current owner — a limited liability company — and the two tenants. All have pleaded not guilty.

The lawyers for the defendants argued that well-publicized glitches with Fire Department equipment caused the deaths of firefighters Curtis Meyran, 46, and John G. Bellow, 37. A Fire Department probe found serious lapses in equipment and procedures, including communication breakdowns and a lack of safety rope.

Cool testified he was carrying a safety rope that he bought six months earlier at a trade show. At the time, city firefighters were not provided with ropes, but the policy changed after the Bronx fire. He saw other firefighters jumping from a nearby window, and turned to his friend Joseph DiBernardo.

"I said, 'Joey, I've got a rope,'" he said. But there was nowhere to secure the line. DiBernardo held the rope while Cool descended, but it snapped and he fell. DiBernardo was able to lower himself part way before he fell, too. Both men survived, but Cool now walks with a slight limp and said he had to retire from the FDNY because of his injuries.