Temp. walls turn apartments into firetraps

January 21, 2009 2:34:14 PM PST
The firefighters responding to the blaze at a Bronx apartment building were trapped in a maze of illegal partitions. With flames licking at their bodies and black smoke making it nearly impossible to see, the men had little choice but to jump from a fourth-floor window.

"Next thing you know, that I remember, is hitting the ground 40 feet below," firefighter Jeffrey Cool testified recently in court. "I was in a world of hurt. I was in the worst pain I've ever found myself in."

The trial now under way of four people charged in the blaze highlights the persistent fire hazard of using temporary walls for illegal apartment conversions - a common problem in a city where rents are high and space is always in demand.

Two firefighters were killed in the January 2005 blaze after leaping out the window; another four were hurt, including Cool.

The former owner of the building, the current owner and two tenants face manslaughter and lesser charges for allowing the construction. All have pleaded not guilty.

Across the city, such makeshift warrens can be found in neighborhoods popular with college students, recent graduates on their first jobs and immigrants. A lock is often slapped on the extra rooms so they can be rented for extra money.

"Owners complain to me, every door of every bedroom has a padlock on it," said Frank Ricci of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents 25,000 property owners in the city. "It's tremendously difficult for them to gain access to their apartments."

To build such walls, a permit is needed from the city's Department of Buildings. If any electrical wiring is installed, an electrical permit is also needed. And the agency recommends working with an architect.

"Illegal walls can put tenants and first responders' lives in danger. Owners and tenants must obtain a permit to safely install a wall," said Buildings spokeswoman Kate Lindquist, whose department gets thousands of complaints annually related to illegal conversions.

Apartment owners often plead ignorant, saying they have little control over tenants because they rarely see what goes on within the apartments. But renters say owners are just as guilty.

In one example, tenants at Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town, a massive rent-regulated complex in Manhattan, complained to the Fire and Buildings departments about owner Tishman Speyer Properties advertising "convertible" apartments.

The firm purchased the complex in 2006 for a record $5.4 billion, setting off fears among tenants and some public officials that it was hoping to make a profit by seeking to charge market rates for the rent-stabilized apartments.

Jim Roth of the tenants association said he remembered the deadly fire in the Bronx when the association filed the complaint.

"I thought, can they do this? The answer was no, not without a permit," he said.

Fire and Buildings officials told the company it couldn't advertise apartments with the suggestion that it was OK to add so-called pressurized walls, and that permits were needed for any changes. Since then, Tishman Speyer has obtained permits, and it declined to comment further.

DiBernardo was able to lower himself part way before he fell, too. Both men survived, but Cool now walks with a slight limp and said he had to retire from the FDNY because of his injuries.

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