THE FALL OF A DEATH TRAP.
One day last week two buildings in this city, occupied by a large number of people, collapsed at seven o’clock in the morning, and fell to the ground, a mass of rubbish. The disaster was as sudden as unexpected, and the demolition of the buildings as complete as though an earthquake had suddenly torn away its foundations. A number of persons were buried in the ruins, nine of whom were killed, and others seriously injured. The Fire Department was at once summoned to the scene, and the men were employed all day in removing the wounded and dead from the ruins. This disaster points out the absolute necessity of frequent and thorough examinations of buildings. Both structures that fell were very old, but had been “ modernized ” by removing a portion of the brick wall of the first story and substituting an open front, and by the addition of another story upon the walls thus weakened. These alterations were made in the days of the old Building Department, when open bribery of officials did |away with legal restraints and official supervision. As the building laws are administered to-day by the Fire Department, such alterations to old and frail buildings would be prohibited. Indeed, this building had already been inspected and orders were about to be issued compelling the owner to make it safe, but owing to the great amount of work required of a small and inadequate force of inspectors, the specifications were not ready to be delivered. While the building was’thus known to be in a dangerous condition, it was not believed that the peril was sufficiently imminent to warrant ordering the tenants to remove.
There are hundreds of old buildings in New York that are in nearly if not quite as dangerous a condition as those that tumbled down with such fatal effect. They were substantially built originally, but have been added to and altered over so many times that their solidity has been infringed upon, and they are no longer fit for occupancy. This is especially true of many buildings in the lower part of the city, that were originally built for dwelling houses, but that have been changed over and are now used for business purposes. In many of these, the solid brick fronts have been cut away, and plate glass fronts substituied, with iron columns to support the heavy walls above. Upon floors that were intended only for domestic uses, large quantities of goods of great weight are stored, and the wonder is that they do not come tumbling upon the heads of their occupants. Buildings of this description can be counted by the hundreds ; every one of them should be inspected by the Building Department, and such changes made as will insure their safety. But how can this be done ? There are but sixteen inspectors employed at present, this being all that the appropriation will admit of, and these have more than they can do in watching the erection of new buildings. To do this alone would impose upon each inspector the task of supervising fifty buildings now in course of construction, and with the present tendency of builders to evade the laws, each building should be visiled at least once a day. llow utterly impossible is it for the present force of the Building Depaitment to do the work that should be done is apparent. The old Building Department cost nearly $too,ooo a year, while the appropriation for the present. Department have been cut down to about $30,000. Never before in the history of the city have so many buildings of all kinds been under construction at one time as now. Instead of crippling the Building Department by cutting down its appropriation, more money should be given it, and its working force more than doubled. Ten inspectors at least should be employed constantly in the work of inspecting buildings already completed, and seeing that they are amply provided with supports to sustain the greater weight with which they are loaded, and that suitable precautions are taken to secure their safety. Owners of property will not take such measures unless they are compelled to, and it is only by the personal inspection of their property that their defects can be made known.
These dangerous structures are full of peril for the Firemen. Suppose a fire had broken out in those buildings that fell last week, before the disasier, and the Firemen had swarmed into and upon them, as they are in the habit of doing? The walls would have crumbled with the heat of the flames and the loss of life would have been largely increased, more than one Fireman being numbered amorg the victims. They are liable to be summoned’at any hour to enter these old and overloaded buildings, and no one can predict the moment when they will pay with iheir lives the penalty of their daring. The buildings that fell gave no indications to a superficial observer that they were in a dangerous condition, and even the Firemen who were familiar with them apprehended no danger. This fact demonstrates how necessary it is that a thorough inspection should be made of buildings of this kind by an expert in building construction.
In addition to the peril that lurks in old and overloaded buildings, there is quite as much if not more, in some of the new ones that are now being put up. There is an immense structure now being built for business purposes on Broadway that no Fireman should be permitted to enter in case of fire. The exterior is all of iron, while the floors are supported on iron girders resting on iron columns. It would take but a comparatively small degree of heat to warp and twist this iron work till the whole structure came tumbling down. There is no safety for a man in such a building in case of a fire occurring within it. Yet this structure comes within the requirements of the building laws, and there is no power that can compel the owner to strengthen it or remove the dangerous features of its construction. There are many fine appearing buildings in the city, whose granite or iron fronts give them the appearance of great solidity, but whose faults of construction are such that Chief Bates would not permit the Firemen to enter them in case of a fire occurring within them. The Chief is an old practical builder, and whenever he sees a building going up, he makes a mental note of its defects, and applies such knowledge in directing the Firemen as occasion requires. It is a very hard matter in any of the large cities to prevent property-owners putting up dangerous buildings. Instead of building in a substantial manner for all time, their ambition is to erect a fine appearing building at as little cost as possible, and they will not spend a dollar to provide against the possible contingency of a conflagration. So long as they can insure cheap and flimsy construction for its full cost, there is no incentive to them to spend money to make their buildings fire proof. In these later days, many of our buildings are put up solely on speculation, a builder will get possession of a piece of ground and upon it erect a number of dwellings or. a business block with the intention of selling the whole at a profit, and as speedily as possible. The buildings are made for show and not for solidity ; the builder has “ skinned ” everything down to the lowest possible cost, and wherever it was possible to slight the work there it has been done. It is this class of buildings that give more work to the Building Department than all others combined. As an illustration of how reckless and how unscrupulous some builders are, one of these, Michael McDermott, last week sent a letter to Inspector Winterbottom, containing $50, and informing him that he desired to put an extra story on the house he was building, and begged the Inspector not to complain to the Department about it. The letter and the money has been placed in the hands of the counsel to the Fire Department with instructions to prosecute McDermott if possible. Under the old administration, bribery of inspectors was a common thing, and readily accounts for the great number of unsafe buildings to be found on every hand. There is little prospect of getting effective building laws until property-owners are unanimous in demanding them. Until they are secured, the public, not the Building Department, must be held responsible for insecure and defective construction.