Incinerator fires were a plague to us. When we were experiencing 30 to 40 responses a day, we could always count on six or more of them to be time-consuming, frustrating garbage-chute fires in the urban high-rises that stood in the rubble of recently burned-out, fourto six-story apartment buildings in Brooklyn’s Brownsville section.
Trash not burned or emptied on the weekend stacked up in the incinerator chute for many floors. It was impossible for residents to empty their rubbish if they lived on any floor below the top of the pile. The alternative was to set fire to the garbage—either the fire would rise through the muck and burn the incinerator open, or firefighters would respond to pull the burning combustibles into the cellar and overhaul the smoldering debris. In any event, the resident got the shaft open.
Then the law changed. It was no longer permissible to burn refuse. Newer buildings were constructed with a flimsy, tinwalled chute for waste disposal—the trash compactor. It was installed in the same shaft that provided plumbing and ventilation to the bathroom and kitchen areas of the building.
But the looks of the hopper didn’t change, and apartment dwellers didn’t know they were no longer dealing with a noncombustible chimney. They continued to “torch the shaft when full,” as uninformed residents did in Harlem on March 22, starting an inferno that rapidly spread into apartments on the 33rd and 34th Boors of a 35-story high-rise.
The fire took the lives of seven residents. Three persons, not trapped in their apartments, jumped to their deaths on the sidewalks below. Monday-morning quarterbacks were quick to blame, but no one looked at the root of the matter. Municipalities that ask the architect and the construction engineer to build shelves for humanity as cheaply as possible must share the blame. Life safety is reduced to providing two stairway enclosures that are accessible through a common hallway. Access is assured! they say.
Assured, that is, if the fire is small and not between the trapped occupants and the stairway they need for escape. This “shelved humanity” is high above the luxury of being removed by the fire department’s dwarfed aerial equipment. In reality, these people have no remote second means of egress.
To bring up the concept that life safety in such circumstances can be assured by sprinkler systems appears to be beating the subject to death. But we had better wake up soon, before the lack of this vital protection beats us to death.