Fire Storms

An inferno in Greenpoint highlights a drop in the number of fire investigators

Just two days after New Yorkers were jolted by the sight of huge black clouds of smoke rolling off the Brooklyn waterfront, Governor Pataki appropriately declared the second week of May as Arson Awareness Week. "Arson is a crime with a long list of victims, including the brave men and women who respond to fire emergencies," said Pataki in a May 5 press release.

Actually, the designation was just a coincidence, part of a routine national observance in conjunction with federal fire agencies, the governor's aides acknowledged. "It was in the hopper for some time," said Laurence Sombke, spokesman for the New York Department of State, which oversees a panel that keeps an eye on arson prevention efforts.

The event was kept so low-key that even high-ranking officials at the city's fire department, where the number of fire-investigating marshals has plummeted in recent years, had no idea it was being held. "Is that right? I didn't know that," said one of the agency's top brass.

Mayday: A 10-alarm blaze destroys 15 buildings in north Brooklyn
photo: Staci Schwartz
Mayday: A 10-alarm blaze destroys 15 buildings in north Brooklyn

But you couldn't ask for a better arson awareness promotion than the spectacular 10-alarm blaze that erupted early on the morning of May 3, consuming 15 buildings smack in the middle of north Brooklyn's red-hot real estate market. Although the cause has yet to be officially determined, firefighters were already privately offering their assessments even as flames were still raging. "That much fire? That fast? There's only one thing that could be," said one veteran.

Other circumstances also fed suspicions: Owner Joshua Guttman was already notorious to tenants in Brooklyn's DUMBO section, where one of his buildings suffered a major suspicious fire in 2004 after he sought evictions there. No charges were brought in that case, and Guttman's attorney insisted he had nothing to do with that blaze nor this month's fire.

Yet timing was another factor: The Greenpoint inferno derailed an effort by local citizen groups to have the site's Civil War–era factory buildings designated as landmarks, a move that would have disrupted plans to transform the site into luxury high-rises.

And of course there was money—gobs of it: After paying $25 million for the site five years ago, Guttman had already accepted a $42 million down payment toward a total purchase price of $420 million from yet another landlord with a bad history, Baruch Singer, who was so disappointed when Guttman balked at completing the deal that he filed suit.

Some experts said Singer's bid was too high, but no one doubted that the property was a potential gold mine. Along the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront, property values exploded after the recent rezoning from manufacturing to high-rise residential. The first newly completed waterside development, a city-assisted project called Schaefer Landing, built on the site of the old F&M Schaefer Brewing Company plant, is bringing its owners $1,000 per square foot for top-floor apartments with views of the river and the Manhattan skyline—far more than anyone, developers and investors included, originally anticipated.

The real estate market is similarly stoked a few miles away in Brooklyn's Prospect Heights neighborhood, where a rash of fires has broken out along the Pacific Street corridor, a strip adjacent to developer Bruce Ratner's proposed new Nets arena and soaring high-rises. Five lives have been lost in fires there in recent months, including a horrendous pre-dawn blaze on February 24 that killed an African immigrant and her two children. A few minutes after that fire began, a second blaze erupted in a residential building a block away. Fire officials found that accelerants were used in both cases.

"We're having suspicious fires now all of the time," said Bill Batson, who serves as co-chairman of the local community board's fire and safety committee. "[Real estate] speculation here is out of control. It's a combustible situation, and we're scared."

Arson is a subject that most New Yorkers haven't had to think hard about for years, not since the firestorms that ravaged inner-city neighborhoods in the late 1970s and early '80s died down. Back then, even a fiscally ailing city decided the crisis warranted putting some 400 fire marshals in the streets.

Helping to persuade city officials was the national humiliation supplied by Howard Cosell's infamous 1977 World Series announcement that "the Bronx is burning." City Hall also received sharp prodding from a network of local neighborhood organizations that, after tracking fires and property transfer records, sent out the alarm that arson-for-profit was becoming a big business.

The increased detective work produced some startling findings. Bad landlords weren't just burning their properties for insurance or other rewards, they were turning to organized arson brokers who provided both the torch and an insidious modus operandi: a fire set in a vacant rear apartment designed to open a hole in the roof, allowing the elements to drive out any remaining occupants. The maypole of one such crew, exposed by the Voice's Jack Newfield and Joe Conason in 1980, was a sinister mob-linked character named Joe Bald, who later cooperated with prosecutors, leading to the conviction of more than three dozen co- conspirators, ranging from lawyers to crooked insurance brokers. City fire marshals played a crucial role in that case and dozens of other major arson prosecutions.

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