Bronx building where deadly fire occurred had faulty doors, heat issues

Tenant last month complained of self-closing door that didn't work at property, which likely had no sprinkler system

333 East 181st Street in the Bronx and Eric Adams (Getty)
333 East 181st Street in the Bronx and Eric Adams (Getty)

UPDATED Jan. 10th, 2022, 7:28 p.m.: A month ago, a resident at 333 East 181st Street complained that a self-closing door was not working and that a malfunctioning radiator had left an entire unit without heat.

Early reporting suggests similar issues in a separate apartment in the West Bronx building may have contributed to the Sunday morning blaze that killed 17 people, including eight children, in the city’s deadliest fire in three decades.

The fire broke out in the bedroom of a second-floor duplex, where a space heater had been running for several days, the New York Times reported. After residents of the apartment fled, the door was left open and did not close by itself, allowing smoke to spread into the hallway.

A complaint history of the 19-story building, in Fordham Heights, shows a resident of a sixth-floor apartment reported in early December that the self-closing door was not functioning as designed and that the unit was experiencing heating issues.

A complaint filed Dec. 8 said the living room radiator was broken and two complaints filed Dec. 6 and Dec. 8 said the entire apartment had no heat. Records from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development show the issues had been rectified.

The New York City Council passed a law in 2018 that required all apartment and stairway doors to be self-closing by July 2021. The legislation was enacted after a 2017 fire at a Bronx building killed nine people. Closing a door of a burning room or apartment is often essential to containing the blaze.

A spokesperson for the building’s owners — LIHC Investment Group, Belveron Partners and Camber Property Group — told The City that the building does have self-closing doors.

In a Monday interview on “Good Morning America,” Mayor Eric Adams said there “may have been a maintenance issue” with the door behind which the fire began. “That is going to be part of the ongoing investigation,” he said.

The use of a space heater in the apartment where the fire started suggests that the building’s heating might not have been sufficient. New York City Fire Commissioner Dan Nigro said he believed the building’s heat had been functioning and that the space heater was being used as a supplement.

Records from the city’s Department of Buildings show the property’s previous owner, Cammeby’s International Group, had replaced the building’s boilers in 2017 and failed to file a boiler inspection report in 2014. Cammeby’s purchased the building in 2013.

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Affordable housing investors LIHC, Belveron Partners and Camber Property acquired it, along with several other Bronx properties, at the end of 2019, taking on a nearly $25 million mortgage from Cammeby’s and announcing plans to make additional repairs. The Department of Buildings has no record of job filings since the trio acquired the building.

In all, the property has 18 open violations. Most are for pests, including mice, roaches and bed bug infestations on various floors. However, an outstanding violation reported last March details “broken or defective fire retardant material” on the building’s first floor.

A spokesperson for the owners said the building’s violations have been fixed. They show as open on the HPD website only because the agency has yet to close them, the spokesperson said.

The building, constructed in 1972, has no fire escapes. In 1968, the city’s building code was altered to recommend internal stairs, as well as fire alarms or sprinkler systems in new buildings, in lieu of escapes.

The building at 333 East 181st Street did have an alarm system. However, residents told the Times that the smoke detectors went off so frequently — sometimes five or six times a day, according to one tenant — that they often ignored them. A spokesperson for the owners told the Times that the alarm system was working and there were no known problems with the alarms. Nigro said one of the first calls about the fire came from a resident who heard the alarm, according to the Times.

It is less likely that the building had a sprinkler system, one of the key tools in reducing fire deaths and injuries, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

In the late 1990s, the Giuliani administration considered mandating sprinklers in all city buildings, following two deadly fires. After developers including Donald Trump lobbied against the legislation, arguing that retrofits would be too expensive, the City Council passed a bill that required sprinklers only in new residential buildings with four or more units.

The City Council took another stab at reforms in 2018, introducing a bill that would have mandated automatic sprinklers in every residential building above 40 feet. However, real estate groups and landlords argued that retrofitting buildings with sprinklers would be disruptive to tenants and extremely expensive, and the proposal was dropped.

Department of Buildings records do not indicate sprinklers were ever added to the East 181st Street building.

This article has been updated to include comments from the building owners’ spokesperson.

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