New York City’s deadliest fire in more than three decades ripped through the Twin Parks apartment building in the Bronx earlier this year, killing 17 people including nine children. An unattended space heater caused the fire, officials said.
Built in 1973 Twin Parks, like much of the Bronx’s affordable public housing, is aging. Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC), Canada’s largest social housing provider, faces a similar situation. Most of the 350 buildings TCHC either owns or manages are between 40 and 50 years old. Is Toronto public housing susceptible to a fire like the one that ravaged Twin Parks?
WATCH | Alejandra Ruiz Vargas from ACORN speaks on TCHC fire safety:
What happened in NYC
Approximately 200 firefighters responded to the fire at the 19-storey Twin Parks north-west tower, on East 181st Street around 11:00 a.m. on Jan. 9. Fire officials said that the fire was started by one of several electric space heaters that had been left running for several days in a bedroom of a third-floor unit. The apartment’s doors should have closed automatically behind the tenants — as they are designed to do and required by New York City law — as they fled their unit. But the door’s self-closing mechanism did not work. Smoke spread and engulfed several other floors.
Problems with Twin Parks’ doors were ongoing. The NYC Housing Authority issued six violations between 2014 and 2019 for problems with self-closing doors involving four apartments and one stairwell. City records showed another tenant complaint about a problem with a self-closing door in an apartment in 2021.
“We need a system that promptly detects violations and a system that takes quick action to make sure that violations once detected are quickly cured,” Coun. Oswald Feliz, a Democrat from the Bronx and chair of the New York City’s newly formed Fire Prevention Task Force told The City.
Many residents initially dismissed the early Sunday morning alarm, thinking it was just another one of the building’s periodic false alarms. But it was not long before smoke began penetrating residents’ apartments and became too thick in the hallway for an escape.
Trapped in their apartments, tenants broke windows for air and stuffed wet towels under their doors so they would not suffocate.
Residents who tried to escape would have found the smoke had poured into the building’s stairwells. A second door on a 15th floor landing also failed to close, as well as doors on other floors. The stairwell turned into a death trap for some trying to escape, as the smoke incapacitated them as they tried to flee. The New York City medical examiner confirmed that all 17 fatalities died of smoke inhalation. There were victims on every floor.
“The two most important things to most of us are our family and our home. And to lose both in the span of a single tragedy is profoundly traumatic,” U.S. Congressman Ritchie Torres, a Democrat who represents New York’s 15th Congressional District, said in a YouTube interview. Ritchie represents the south Bronx where the Twin Parks apartment is located.
“The level of pain is unspeakable. There are no words that can comfort.”
When asked why the four worst fires in New York City, (including Twin Parks), over the last three decades all took place in the Bronx, Ritchie said on YouTube. “Not every building has ‘21st century’ standards of higher safety. Tenants are at risk when we underfund affordable housing.”
Could it happen in Toronto?
From 2010 to Dec 2017 Toronto Fire Services responded to 51 major Toronto Community Housing fires, with 28 significant fires in TCH buildings in 2018 alone.So what exactly is TCHC doing to ensure the safety of its residents in the event of a fire?
TCHC conducted an enterprise-wide assessment in 2017 to gain a better understanding of fire safety risks as well as the current controls in place to mitigate them. The findings led to the creation of a new corporate fire, life and safety (FLS) department in March 2018.
“Fire safety, as a component of FLS, is a top priority in Toronto Community Housing,” Robin Smith, manager for TCHC media relation & issues management, said in an email.
Read more from the Observer:
The assessment also led to the development and implementation of a wide range of key FLS program components and deliverables: governance, operations, education and policies and procedures. Operations, for example, is designed to enhance fire response and recovery across TCHC. The program component covers compliance and inspection programs for infrastructure such as fire alarms and sprinkler systems.
“All life safety systems are tested and maintained in accordance with the Ontario Fire Code and affiliate standards,” Smith said.
The FLS program also places a lot of emphasis on education. TCHC has issued a new Safety Guide for tenants which contains comprehensive information about fire safety issues along with preventative measures.
“It (the guide) is an important educational component in our approach to tenant fire and life safety,” Smith said.
Smith was asked about self-closing doors, which failed to close during the Twin Parks fire. Are similar doors installed in TCHC buildings?
Every fire door is required to self-close and latch according to the Ontario Fire code, Smith said. “TCHC is in compliance with this code.” Regular checks are performed on both unit and stairwell doors.
Toronto Fires Services (TFS) media confirmed in an email that TFS inspection staff conduct inspections that include physically checking, inspecting, and testing of various fire and life safety devices (including self-closing doors) within a building.
How safe do TCHC residents feel in their own homes?
Alejandra Ruiz Vargas describes herself as a voice for “people who do not have a voice.” She is an active member of ACORN, (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), a community union dedicated to social and economic justice, and chair of their East York Chapter. She also lives in public housing herself and deals with many issues TCHC residents face.
So how does TCHC perform on fire safety?
“They (TCHC) are doing well,” Ruiz Vargas said in a phone interview. “They are very concerned about fire safety and very conscious about fire hazards.”
Ruiz Vargas said things have improved a lot as TCHC invested in fire alarms and is conducting fire safety inspections every year. “They have the money now and they have been doing something.”
But Ruiz Vargas said that fire alarms and annual inspections may not be enough to keep buildings up to (fire) code. Some TCHC residents waited years for repairs as the city didn’t fulfill its responsibility to enforce by-law violations.
“It’s one thing to have a law, but another to enforce it.”
As a result, ACORN has lobbied the City of Toronto since 2004 to implement a rent-safe program where by-aw officers would inspect and audit TCHC buildings for fire safety. Buildings would receive a green sticker and a pass. Or a red sticker would be assigned, and the building would fail.
But Toronto city councilors opposed the program, saying it would create a stigma among residents. “The city is playing hardball,” Ruiz Vargas said.