BLAZE AT MONSEY GROCERY STORE WITH A HISTORY OF CODE VIOLATIONS UNDERSCORED DANGERS OF LAX ENFORCEMENT IN RAMAPO
“When he arrived at the Motty’s Supermarket fire in Monsey shortly after noon on Feb. 18, the swirling snow was the least of Monsey Fire Chief Andrew Schlissel’s problems.
The fire had a head start and — as is too often the case in Ramapo, where code-enforcement lacks teeth — the building had secrets.
Over the years, owners had built out the structure without filing required permits or seeking certificates of occupancy. Decades of violations had been chronicled by inspectors, but little was done to remedy the issues. Fire crews couldn’t see the two shipping containers that had been added to the back of the original store.
Adam Gordon, a former Monsey chief and now its second assistant chief, worked the fire command post with Schlissel, joined by Rockland Emergency Service Coordinator Chris Kear.
“It was one of the worst buildings I’ve seen, just addition after addition,” Kear said. “Cargo containers, modules, everything.”
One firefighter described the layout as a backward question mark, a building that twisted and turned in the smoke and flame. Even standing outside, the acrid smoke created blackout conditions. The flames only worsened, gorging on paper goods, flammable home products, and other supermarket staples.
Inside the burning building at 19 Main St., Monsey firefighter Aaron Lerer said he and about eight other firefighters aggressively tried knocking down the flames on what firefighters call a “push,” going on the offensive.
But the market’s aisles were narrow and difficult for the Monsey and Tallman firefighters to navigate. And things weren’t what they appeared to be: What they thought was the ceiling was actually a drop ceiling, with fire raging above.
“The farther you went into the building, the less visibility you had,” said Lerer, 35, a volunteer firefighter for more than half his life.
There were no windows or doors inside. No sprinklers were working to douse the flames and help the firefighters. They soon found themselves surrounded.
“When we felt we were making progress, the flames came back at us from behind,” Lerer said. “It was an old building and burned faster.”
As conditions worsened, Schlissel and Kear conferred and Schlissel made the call to evacuate. They would settle for a defensive posture, what firefighters call “surround and drown.”
Moments later, after all were out safe, the roof collapsed.
Thirty-four days before the fatal fire at the Evergreen Court Home for Adults, which took the life of Spring Valley Fire Lt. Jared Lloyd and an elderly resident, Rockland County had averted disaster.
The Evergreen Court and Motty’s fires differed from a firefighting standpoint.
Lloyd, a volunteer, had risked everything and, tragically, lost everything, to save an untold number of people. Despite low water pressure and hydrants that gave them little water to fight the fire, he and other first responders pulled 112 elderly residents to safety.
In Monsey, firefighters were in harm’s way to save a structure.
“It’s a miracle no one was killed,” one retired fire official said.
The Motty’s fire underscored a longstanding problem in Ramapo, where rogue construction runs rampant and lax enforcement makes it seem like Dodge City.
The town’s hierarchy — from assistant town attorney prosecutors to the supervisor’s office to the town judges — appears to have little appetite to level the harsh fines that are available to them as a deterrent, up to $5,000 per violation per day.
Montal vs. Metro-North
Motty’s Supermarket was a hodgepodge of buildings that had for decades — the first known violation was issued in 1979 — run afoul of fire and code-enforcement inspectors and had drawn the ire of Metro-North Railroad. Its owners had paid some fines but, as recently as last August, hadn’t repaired the building.
Photos from August 2020 show shipping containers lashed together, electrical cords snaking out from under the eaves, cardboard boxes and debris everywhere, and buildings placed on paved-over railroad property.
When railroad lawyers cried foul last November — three months before the fire — and advised Motty’s owner to remove the structures from the railroad property, the owner went to Ramapo Town Hall.
Rather than looking at the long list of building and fire-code violations and telling the owner to fix his building, remedy the violations and end the encroachment, Mona Montal, Ramapo’s purchasing director and Supervisor Michael Specht’s chief of staff, picked up the phone and told the railroad to back off.
The town had a license to use the property, Montal said.
Yes, Metro-North acknowledged, the railroad had granted a 2011 license for Ramapo to use its right-of-way. But that was for a pedestrian or bicycle path, not for a neighbor to pave over and erect buildings on.
The buildings were still there on Feb. 18, 2021, when the fire raged. And the wreckage of the buildings remains. Now the railroad is worried about those who might be injured in the debris left on its land.
The involvement of Montal — who is also chair of the Ramapo Democratic Committee — on behalf of a private business, which Specht said he endorsed, is the kind of decision that has longtime Ramapo watchers repeating their constant refrain: That’s Ramapo for you.”
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