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‘Nothing Easy About It’

Bronx Building’s Oil-Based Paint Made It Burn Like ‘Gasoline’

‘Couple breaths of that and you’re on the floor,’ the firefighter said. ‘You can take a couple of whiffs and you’re unconscious.’

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Amr Alfiky/Reuters

The FDNY has repeated the message in safety ads and Fire Commissioner Dan Nigro did so again on Friday morning. He was standing just down the block from a five-story Bronx apartment building where 12 people had perished.

“Close the door, close the door, close the door,” Nigro said.

Nigro reported that fire marshals had worked through the night and determined the blaze had started shortly before 7 p.m. Thursday, when a 3-year-old child played with the stove burners in a kitchen on the first floor. The boy’s screams had alerted his mother. She had fled to safety with him along with her other child, a 2-year-old.

“And left the door open,” Nigro noted.

Nigro continued. “Fire travels up. The stairway acted like a chimney. It took the fire so quickly upstairs that people had very little time to react.”

He went on, “If unfortunately you do have a fire in your apartment, you must close the door when you exit. Because the results if you don’t are what happened here last night.”

Part of what happened once the open door caused the stairway to become a chimney was the heat ignited oil-based paint that had been applied layer after layer since the building was built in 1910.

“It burns like gasoline,” one of the firefighters later said.

Such “flashovers” are the reason oil-based paint is no longer used in New York City housing projects and should be removed from tenements. The flashover in this particular Bronx building on Thursday instantly generated additional heat so intense it not only cracked the marble stairs and made charcol of the wooden banisters, but also warped the apartment doors that had been closed. Gaps formed between the doors and the jams.

And through the heat-warped apartment doors poured particularly toxic black smoke generated by the century of oil-based paint layered in the hallways as well as the stairwell.

“Couple breaths of that and you’re on the floor,” the firefighter said. “You can take a couple of whiffs and you’re unconscious.”

The firefighters found that every room of every apartment was supercharged with the deadly stuff. Only one of the victims was burned and he happened to have been in the hallway when the paint flashed over. All the others had been in their apartments and overcome by the smoke.

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“Everybody was unconscious,” the firefighter said. “Those people never had a chance.”

Three of the residents had been overcome just as they reached the first of the two doors leading from the vestibule to the street. Their unconscious bodies blocked the door so the first responding units had difficulty entering. The firefighters had to summon comrades to help them push their way in.

“There’s nothing easy about it,” the firefighter said.

Up in apartment 13 on the third floor, a 56-year-old woman and her 18-month-old grandchild had reportedly called her daughter to say, “We’re going to die here.”

The daughter—a relative of a New Jersey firefighter—had apparently then called 911. The arriving firefighters made their way into the apartment to find that the black poison produced by oil-based paint had already done its worst.

“Unlucky 13,” the firefighter later said.

In recent days, much has been made of the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, failing to take adequate steps to prevent children from being exposed to lead-based paint. NYCHA was once also equally negligent about the fire hazards presented by oil-based paint in stairways.

Back in 1990, the FDNY formally notified NYCHA that there had been more than 20 flashover fires in housing project stairwells painted with the stuff. NYCHA waited four years before it even began preliminary tests. And it was still using the paint five years later, despite repeated additional warnings from the FDNY. None other than then Councilman Anthony Weiner showed a better, pre-sexting side when he led the fight to remedy the danger.

“It’s clear there has been fiddling while public housing burned,” he said.

In November of 1994, the FDNY fire prevention bureau filed a memo concerning a flashover inferno in the stairway of a Bronx housing project.

The only source of fuel other than the original couch appears to be the paint,” the memo pointedly noted.

Nearly a quarter century later, much the same seems to have been the case in the stairway of a privately owned Bronx building.

One resident who managed to get out on her own in the moments before the paint ignited was 44-year-old Shevan Stewart. She had been watching television in her first-floor apartment when she heard what sounded like a smoke alarm in the hallway. She figured it had probably been set off by some kids.

“I don’t pay attention to it,” she would recall. “Sometimes they mess around.”

Then there came a shout.

“I heard a lady say, ‘Fire! Fire!’” Stewart remembered.”

Stewart went to her door and peered out.

“I look,” she said. “It’s a lot of smoke.”

Stewart grabbed her coat and the passport and ID that as an immigrant from Jamaica she always keeps beside her door to take with her in the event of such an emergency. The smoke was not yet the extra toxic stuff from the paint, but it precluded her from going down to the basement apartment where her sister lives. She hurried outside and kicked in the basement window.

“Really hard,” Stewart said. “So she could hear me calling out to her.”

But the sister, Elain Williams, was only just then arriving back from work. She came dashing up the block, having just received an alarming phone call.

“They said the building on fire,” Williams recalled. “I rush to get home.”

Williams saw Stewart in the street outside the building, but she did not see her 19-year-old daughter, Shawntay Young. Williams also did not see another sister who lived in the building, 37-year-old Karen Stewart-Francis. Shawntay often visited her Aunt Karen in the evening.

Williams and Stewart began calling their sister Karen and her husband, Holt Francis.

“We start calling, calling them and not hearing them,” Stewart said. “They love the phone, they love the phone. You call them once and if you don’t hear them, they will call you right back.”

They could do nothing but continue trying.

“We kept calling,” Stewart said. “We called, called, called.”

Then the firefighters began carrying out the victims.

“They start bringing them out one by one,” Stewart recalled. “They took out my sister’s husband first. Burned, burned all over.”

Firefighters would say that the lone burned person they encountered was a fatality who was not carried from the building. What Stewart took to be burns was almost certainly the thick, clinging black soot from the oil-based paint. The husband was still alive and firefighters and paramedics were administering CPR on the move. Other firefighters brought out Karen Stewart-Francis and her two daughters, 2-year-old Kylie Francis and 7-year-old Kelly Francis.

“It’s hard to take,” Stewart said. “It’s really, really hard to take.”

Stewart figured that Karen and her family and Shawntay must have tried to make their way out, but found themselves trapped on the fifth floor.

“They go back into the apartment thinking it’s better,” Stewart said. “But it just didn’t work out for them.”

The brother-in-law was still alive on Friday morning.

“He is unconscious, but he might make it,” Williams said.

Karen and her daughter and Shawntay had been beyond saving.

“My daughter and my sister and my two nieces,” Williams said. “All dead.”

At 9 a.m., Williams stood just down the block from the building, where 13 members of her family had lived happily until a stairway was made into a fiery chimney.

“We all came from Jamaica together,” she said. “Now we have to go back together for the funeral.”

The fire had been out for nearly 12 hours. Hydrant water was frozen on the sidewalk. Another day had begun, the first without those who had perished.

“I feel so empty, I feel so lost standing right here,” she said. “My soul is empty.”

Stewart summoned up on her phone a photo collage of Karen and her children. Another photo showed Karen holding 2-year-old Kylie in front of a small but brightly lit carnival ride that had been set up down the street in the summer.

“She wanted to go on the rides,” Stewart said. “She couldn’t because she a baby. She was crying.”

Stewart now had tears of her own streaking her cheeks on a morning that remained bitterly cold for all the morning sun’s brightness.

At 10 a.m., FDNY Commissioner Nigro stepped before the news cameras, his face a mask of the grief that overcomes firefighters when they have given their all and their all proves not to be enough.

This fire that killed 12 and left four more fighting for life was the worst in New York City since the Happy Land social club arson fire of 1990, which killed 87 people just eight blocks from Thursday night’s horror. That is if you do not count 9/11. Nigro does. He was at the Twin Towers when they collapsed.

The firefighters who had actually battled Thursday’s blaze will be beginning the New Year with broken hearts. One of their officers sought to console them after one person after another they got to the hospital perished.

“Sometimes you do everything right and they still die,” the officer told them. “They’re in God’s hands now. We don’t make that decision. It’s in God’s hands.”

The officer noted that the firefighters had rescued some 35 people from the building who will live to see 2018. One resolution we should all make is to remember a lesson everybody should have already learned.

Close the door. Close the door. Close the door.

And then there is the hazard that can warp doors that are left closed and admit black, oily stuff that can fell you after just a couple of breaths, even when you are just steps from safety.

Change the paint. Change the paint. Change the paint.