Fire Storms

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

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.

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.  

But that was then. Overall, the incidence of structural fires in the city declined by more than a third, and the pressure to put smoke detectives on the scene receded. By the time dark, angry clouds started billowing out of the sprawling old Greenpoint Terminal Market this month, the city was down to 80 fire marshals, with another 20 supervisors overseeing their work. That's less than half the number fielded as recently as 2001, when there were 180 marshals and 40 bosses.

At night, when most firebugs are known to prowl, only two or three pairs of marshals are detailed for duty. And instead of operating out of several bases around the city as they did in prior years, fire investigators are now headquartered at a single post in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Adding insult to injury for those who claim fire detection is being shortchanged, two fire marshals are currently detailed as full-time bodyguards for Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta. Even the department's fire-accelerant-sniffing Labrador pup was laid off a few years ago when handling costs were deemed too expensive.

Emergency dispatchers say it's not unusual to hear fire chiefs at late-night suspicious blazes calling in vain for investigators to report to the scene. "On a continual basis we are trying to come up with fire marshals to respond to ongoing incidents," said David Rosenzweig, president of the Fire Alarm Dispatcher's Benevolent Association. "Unfortunately, due to the decrease in the number of fire marshals, it is becoming more and more difficult to provide them."

Ed Burke, former union representative for the marshals, put it more bluntly: "They've shredded the place."

City fire department officials don't argue with the numbers, but insist that there's been no falloff in the agency's ability to respond promptly when needed. "We are doing more with less," said Louis Garcia, the city's chief fire marshal. "We still respond automatically to every fire of two alarms or more, to any fire believed to be suspicious, and whenever there's serious injury or death."

Last week, Garcia had a team of 10 marshals, many working overtime, raking through brick and ash at the scene of the Greenpoint conflagration, searching for a definitive fire cause. Department spokesman Frank Gribbon said that's the kind of intensive scrutiny the department still brings to problem fires, regardless of the cuts. "I give the fire marshals tremendous credit for the work they do," he said.

The decision to use marshals as bodyguards for the commissioner was a post–9-11 "executive protection" tactic initiated by Scoppetta's predecessor, Tom Von Essen, Gribbon said. And even though the department no longer has its own arson-sniffing canines, marshals have access to dogs when needed, as in the Greenpoint blaze, he said.

Arson stats overall are down, fire officials argue, although union officials say that's a self-fulfilling prophecy since there are so many fewer marshals looking for arson in the first place.

But it's not just the grunts in the field and their union who complain about the cuts. Fire safety experts as well insist there is a long-term cost to the city's marshal reductions.

A 2005 report by the New York State Arson Board put the problem succinctly: "Fewer fire investigators leads to fewer fires investigated and fewer arsons detected, which becomes a vicious cycle as arson is perceived as decreasing," the report stated. The arson board is overseen by the state's department of state, the agency that sponsored last week's elusive Arson Awareness Week. Board members include the superintendent of the state police, the commissioner of the state insurance department, and even Chief Marshal Garcia.

"Fire marshals have been relegated to third-class status," said Glenn Corbett, a professor of fire science at John Jay College. "There's no emphasis on it anymore. It's a shame to see how far the fire marshals have fallen."

More marshals investigating more fires produces an index of fire trends, Corbett said, tendencies that might otherwise be invisible to the bravest firefighters. Nor is it only incendiary fires that pose a challenge, he said.

"It was fire marshals who alerted people to a growing problem with candle fires and defective appliances. They come face to face with emerging issues," said Corbett. "The fewer people investigating fires, the less likely you are to discover these things and the less you gain in general public safety." In New York, Corbett added, "the cuts have been so large that you are going to see the amplification of all those factors."  

But incendiary fires have always been the toughest nut to crack. "Arson is one of the few crimes that isn't a crime until some official body says it is," said Michael Jacobson, the former city corrections commissioner who helped lead the city's now defunct Arson Strike Force back in the early 1980s. Jacobson said that even with the resources committed to the fight back then, the rate of convictions to the number of arson fires was "incredibly negligible. It was essentially a crime that was committed almost with impunity. It was just very easy to get away with it."

That's what haunts Bill Batson, the neighborhood activist in Prospect Heights. After a meeting of his fire and safety committee last week, he took a visitor on a late-evening tour of the sites of fatal fires in the neighborhood, including the one at 1033 Pacific Street that killed the immigrant mother and her children as they jumped for their lives. No one's been charged in that blaze yet, but police and fire officials say privately that their chief suspect is drug dealing, not real estate profits.

That theory may bear out. But city records also show that the building changed hands in 2004, with $650,000 paid for what was an already ailing four-story building with 160 housing-code violations, including a dozen serious ones.

Down the street, Batson pointed out a now vacant six-family walk-up at 1015 Pacific, where a new owner paid a whopping $885,000 last year for a property that had more than 280 code violations, including repeated citations for failure to supply heat and hot water. At pre-dawn vigils held for the fire victims in recent weeks, Batson said he and others had spotted the building as "an accident or worse waiting to happen." He said the doors to the hallway and basement had been left wide open, and only a pair of tenants remained. Last week when he looked again, the tenants were gone. Workers had already begun interior demolition.

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