Hell’s Kitchen High Rise Inferno Sparks Proposal Of New Safety Legislation
New York, NY - Evacuating a residential high-rise building in an emergency can pose serious threats to the safety and lives of residents. On Jan. 5, 2014, a three-alarm fire caused panic among residents of 500 West 43rd Street when flames shot out of a 20th floor apartment. Heavy smoke quickly filled an emergency stairwell, which claimed the life of 27-year-old Daniel McClung and critically injured his 32-year-old husband Michael Todd Cohen.
Daniel McClung's tragic death was preventable. Had there been a system in place to communicate with building residents in emergency stairwells, instructions could have been given to tell residents to use different stairwells or go back into their homes - to "stay or go." Intuition tells us to leave our apartments during a fire, but not everyone knows if they live in a fireproof building. An emergency communication system in stairwells allows critical real-time information to be communicated during a fire.
"My boys are the injured and deceased men. We need better safety rules so this will never happen again," said Randi Cohen of Swampscott, MA, and mother of Michael Todd Cohen, whose husband died while trying to escape the building.
In response to an online petition and a groundswell of support from the community, Council Member Corey Johnson is proposing legislation that would ensure first responders and building managers have the means to communicate with residents during emergencies which would help save lives.
"The tragic death at The Strand was entirely preventable," said Councilmember Corey Johnson. "The legislation I'm proposing will require buildings higher than six stories to have Emergency Communication Systems in stairwells, which could inform residents to either 'stay or go,'" Johnson added.
In December 1998, two high-profile high-rise fires prompted the passage of LL10-1999 requiring sprinklers to be installed in all new high-rise construction and buildings undergoing significant renovation of 50% or greater. A taskforce report was issued in 1999 by former FDNY Commissioner Thomas Von Essen, which said that sprinklers should be required in all new residential buildings, including one- and two-family homes, and in buildings undergoing renovations costing 30 percent or more of their value. It also recommended requiring owners of existing buildings over six stories to install public-address systems.
Von Essen, who publicly supports the new legislation, says "If older buildings are able to add wiring for the internet and cable TV, it doesn't seem unreasonable to require a public address speaker system in the stairwells that might save lives."
The proposed law will help protect thousands of residents and is a simple, common sense solution. The fact that emergency communications systems already exist in commercial buildings and hotels is not surprising, but unfortunately they're not in place for thousands of city residents living in high-rise buildings that lack the systems.
"Daniel was my brother-in-law. Michael is my brother," said Greg Cohen of Needham, MA. "I know the facts of this case and a communication breakdown was a major part of the problem. The details continue to come in. But they got caught in the 'attack' stairwell," added Cohen. "A communications system would have saved them."
"The fire on West 43 Street was horrific because a life was lost and because we as the government have not done enough education on fire safety and prevention," said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. "With announcements in stairwells and even fire drills, residents of high rises built to a specific fire code would know that staying in the apartment is safer than going into the stairwell where smoke inhalation can kill. I applaud Council Member Corey Johnson for introducing this legislation, and at the same time I send my deep condolences to the husband and to the family of Daniel McClung."
"My heart goes out to Daniel McClung's husband, family, and friends," said State Senator Brad Hoylman. "This tragedy serves as a reminder of the particular danger that fires pose in our high density environment. I applaud Council Member Johnson for spotlighting the need for stronger fire safety measures in our high-rise apartment buildings."
"The City Council can act to extend the law that requires emergency public address systems in commercial high-rise buildings so it protects residential buildings, as Council Member Johnson is proposing," said Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, who represents the residents of The Strand and surrounding community. "That can also be done through state legislation, and I will be introducing a bill to do that."
"The groundswell of local support around this issue was stunning," said Councilmember Corey Johnson. "It sheds light on the need for legislation addressing this issue, as it could protect so many lives in New York City."