“On Dec. 1, 1958, a school fire in Chicago killed 92 children and three nuns who were teachers in the Our Lady of the Angels school. While the two-story brick building looked safe from the outside, the interior wood design with only one fire escape had no sprinklers, no automatic fire alarm, no smoke or heat detectors, no alarm connected to the fire department, no fire-resistant stairwells and no fire-safe doors from the stairwells to the second floor.
Other than that, it complied with a fire department safety inspection only weeks before the fire, because the school did not have to comply with all fire safety guidelines. Due to a grandfathering clause in the 1949 standards, existing schools were not required to retrofit the safety devices that were required in all newly constructed schools. In the only positive outcome of the tragedy, sweeping changes in school fire safety regulations were enacted nationwide, no doubt saving countless lives in subsequent years.
Today, the Town of Ramapo and the Village of Spring Valley allow private-school students to occupy portable trailers that offer less protection than the building that in 1958 saw 92 students perish. These kinds of trailers, which are supposed to be temporary and only in use for a one-year period, are death traps.
I don’t believe that the parents of the students are knowingly putting their children at risk. But the elected government of Ramapo and Spring Valley, and the Planning, Zoning and Appeals boards that they have appointed and supported, could apparently care less.
The State Codes Division has visited Rockland to see these death traps, has chastised Ramapo and Spring Valley in writing but has done absolutely nothing to affect any meaning changes. And the state education law allows anyone, and I mean anyone, to inspect and certify these schools as long as the school hires and approves them. No training required!
Amid a Dec. 2 fire, the City of Oakland, California suffered 36 deaths in an admitted illegally converted warehouse, a building that was under building department investigation and was still allowed to operate.
Think illegally converted dwellings instead of a warehouse. Think about the buildings that Rockland’s volunteer firefighters discover in Ramapo, Kaser, New Hempstead and Spring Valley on an almost daily basis. We have the potential for a similar fatal-fire disaster in this county.
Neighborhood action groups have sprung up in Hillcrest, Spring Valley, Airmont and Chestnut Ridge, and I applaud their efforts to take back their areas. But where are their elected officials? Indicted and awaiting trials are one town supervisor and two building inspectors, and one fire inspector demoted and still on the job; that’s a horrible record for those elected or appointed to uphold the laws and codes and earn the public trust.
The New York State Association of Fire Chiefs, in a recent press release, called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to “strengthen the laws governing the illegal conversions of buildings without building permits and oversight from fire and code enforcement officials.”
“The fire service has been advocating for changes since a 2005 fire in New York City on what is known as Black Sunday, claimed the lives of three veteran FDNY members. The firefighters were trapped in a building that had been illegally converted into multiple apartments and their anticipated means of exit was blocked by an illegal wall that had been erected.”
The Rockland County Illegal Housing Task Force, established in 2009 as a direct result of Black Sunday and similar conditions found in Rockland County, has been calling for state action and changes to the state penal code and state education law for the last seven years. We’ve been helped by our state officials (Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski, D-New City; Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, D-Suffern; and State Sen. David Carlucci, D-New City) and a countywide effort through the county health department by County Executive Ed Day, but our efforts have continuously fallen on deaf ears in Albany.
Look no further than the Governor’s office because it is the second floor in Albany that ultimately controls the action of the State Codes Division. Someone has the governor’s ear, and it obviously isn’t the fire service. This is a statewide problem, not unique to Rockland County. The recent death of FDNY Battalion Chief Michael Fahy, a former Rockland resident in an illegally-converted Bronx building only amplifies that fact. Where is the outrage from the Uniformed Firefighters Association (my union) and the Uniformed Fire Officers Association on these illegal conversions in NYC and support for proposed state legislation? How many more civilians and firefighters have to die or become disabled before elected officials statewide and in New York City take real action? It’s time for them lead, follow or get the heck out of the way of fire safety progress. Enough!”
John Kryger Community View in The Journal News
The writer, a Garnerville resident and retired FDNY firefighter, is chairman of Rockland County Illegal Housing Task Force and Rockland County Deputy Fire Coordinator.