The following editorial appears in The Journal News:
Just how many close calls does one community get? That is the question being asked in New Square, scene of a potentially catastrophic fire Thursday. This time – first responders have been here on multiple occasions – the smoky blaze was on the second floor of a boys yeshiva closed during Passover but still housing teenage students. While some of the 20 to 30 boys at Yeshiva Avir Yakov on Washington Avenue managed to flee the dormitories without incident, many were left banging on locked or otherwise obstructed doors near the school entrance. One door had a broken push bar; one was padlocked at the base; and two other doors were locked from the outside, Hillcrest Fire Chief Kim Weppler told the Editorial Board. The boys banged on the two sets of double doors until a man with a key appeared, unlocked a door and let the students out.
A village official maintained that a door at the back of the building is always open – a fact that would be meaningless to anyone who headed to the front. Certainly, building and safety codes require more reasonable safeguards – and more vigilance by those charged with ensuring compliance.
New Square Deputy Mayor Israel Spitzer, who serves as spokesman for the village, has worked with the Hillcrest Fire Department on safety issues for years. He told the Editorial Board that because of the Passover holiday, a full accounting of the incident would not come until Tuesday. He disputed the notion that anyone was trapped. “We have an exit which is always open and available through Jefferson Avenue,” he said.
Fire Chief Weppler said that one back door was unlocked, but the front doors were inoperable, and a locked gate blocked a stairway to the roof. At the time of the 2 p.m. fire, the smoke was thick and caustic, he said. A plastic garbage container was burning. “That can overcome you rather quickly.”
Spirit of regulations
Fire and safety regulations are built from a history of tragedies. The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire on the Lower East Side killed 146 employees, trapped by locked doors and fire escapes that collapsed. The 1990 Happy Land nightclub arson in the Bronx killed 87; fire exits had been blocked to keep people from sneaking into the club.
“The rules are really strict, Rockland Emergency Services Coordinator Gordon Wren Jr. told the Editorial Board, “especially for schools.” The building would need multiple accessible exits, Wren said, especially because it predates the need for a sprinkler system. “Every occupied space has to have at least two ways out, even a single-family house,” Wren said.
New Square, long lacking modern fire and safety code requirements, has made many strides in recent years. It adopted state-mandated fire regulations in 2005, albeit four decades late. The village also hired a building and fire inspector, Manny Carmona, in 2006. But Weppler compared Carmona’s job to holding back the ocean tide with a teaspoon.
“He is probably the best thing that’s ever happened to us and the community at large in New Square,” Weppler said. “I’m not blaming the community at large.”
Even with the steps over the past several years to follow the letter of the law, the spirit of safety rules must be followed as well. The leaders of the village must demand that its businesses, residences and schools enforce all rules that will keep its citizens safe.