Yesterday morning we experienced a structure fire that should have been fairly routine but turned out to be anything but routine.
At 07:47, the Central Nyack Volunteer Fire Department was dispatched to a possible structure fire.
Central Nyack Fire Chief Michael Healy responded immediately from his home. Chief Healy is a veteran fire fighter with 45 years as a fire fighter, one of our long time fire instructors with 20 years in the Chief ranks. Chief Healy arrived on the scene and reported heavy smoke and fire showing from the first floor of a two-story wood frame residential building.
The fire building appeared to be a typical one-family residence in good condition, with a manicured front lawn and flower beds. The Chief noticed a large number of civilians in front of the building and was told by one of them that a handicapped person was trapped. When he asked where, the resident responded, "upstairs."
Six fire fighters were immediately sent to search the second floor above the fire; and despite a thorough search of the sprawling second floor, no victim was located.
While the search was underway, the fire was being attacked and quickly knocked down. Within a few minutes, Chief Healy received a radio transmission from his son Shawn (another son, Mike was also at the scene) saying they had found the victim on the first floor. It was apparent that the victim was deceased. There was no way that she could have been rescued due to her location in the most involved area of the fire.
As the smoke cleared, it became apparent why the "upstairs" comment had been made. This former one-family home had been illegally converted to a four-family multiple dwelling and did not meet the codes for a multiple dwelling.
The cellar had been converted to house two separate apartments. One of the tenants living in the cellar had made the statement about the victim being trapped "upstairs." The fire fighters also discovered separate apartments on the first and second floors. Conditions in the cellar were particularly dangerous to the residents and any fire fighter attempting to enter it.
To gain entrance to the larger cellar apartment, one had to bend over to go through an approximately 4'6" opening. Fire fighters observed bedrooms with no windows and no second means of egress with only one exit for both apartments. In addition, there were very low ceilings; the gas fired boiler and hot water heater were illegally installed in a bedroom; tiny cellar windows were the only ones in the cellar apartments, and they had air conditioner units in them; no working smoke or CO detectors were found, and numerous other violations were noted.
When the Chief and the investigators looked at the overall situation, everyone agreed that it was a miracle that only one resident had died. If the fire had started a few hours earlier or in the cellar, the tragedy could have been much worse with numerous residents trapped.
This fire is just one of many we have experienced in illegally converted buildings throughout our county. Thousands of residents are residing in substandard housing.
In this case, experienced fire fighters were sent to search above a working fire based upon information from a well meaning resident, who should not have been living with others "downstairs" in a cellar that is not considered habitable space as per state codes. An experienced Chief and quality fire fighters helped this one from going very bad.
In recognition of the major hazards to our fire fighters and residents (in this case several children, including a one-month old infant), we have created an Illegal Housing Task Force and have been working with civilian groups to attack the problem. I will write more on this very effective method for addressing illegal buildings next month.