NY Post - May 10, 2019
The Harlem public housing apartment where six family members died in a massive blaze was a death trap that could never be built today — and thousands of Big Apple units pose a similar risk, an expert said Thursday.
Building plans obtained by The Post show the Frederick Samuel Houses unit’s layout placed nearly all emergency exits next to the kitchen, which was reduced to cinders after the blaze sparked from an unattended stove there early Wednesday.
“That’s a really bad design. You couldn’t build it this way today,” John Jay College associate professor of fire science Glenn Corbett said.
“You’ve always got to have two ways out.”
One window leading to the fifth-floor fire escape is just feet from the kitchen — another is tucked away in a bathroom.
The victims — mother Andrea Pollidore, 45, her kids Elijah Pollidore, 3; Brook-Lynn Pollidore, 6; Andre Pollidore, 8; Nakyra Pollidore, 11, and stepson, Mac Abdularaulph, 33 — were found in two bedrooms on the opposite side of the apartment from the fire escapes.
Corbett estimated there are “thousands” of old Big Apple residences that have inadequate exits that are allowed to persist because they were constructed before modern building laws.
“This is not unique to this building, this is a problem in a lot of places where if a fire breaks out between you and the exit, you’re out of options,” he said.
Building rules now require two distinct exits for every unit, but the 1910 building — like so many others in the city — has been grandfathered in.
Still, NYCHA should have done more to address the issue when it renovated the structure in 1994, Corbett said.
“When organizations like NYCHA rehabilitate them, they’ve got to take a much closer look at the safety,” he said.
While a 1968 law bars the installation of new fire escapes, the city could have at least installed fire sprinklers, which suppress the flames and buy occupants time to escape, he said.
“A lot of older, existing buildings like this have problems like this that haven’t been addressed,” he said. “One way to address them is sprinklers.”
Instead, the family was boxed in by the blaze.
“How can they get out if the fire happened in the kitchen?” raged Raven Reyes, 27, another daughter of Pollidore’s who was not there at the time of the fire.
Photos released Thursday revealed just how badly the inferno gutted the kitchen — with the blackened stove where it all started slumped over in the middle of the room.
“I’ve never seen an apartment that badly burnt in my life,” a NYCHA maintenance worker who specializes in fire cleanup said at the scene.
A surviving son pointed blame at the housing authority for not making the apartment safer.
“They should have been able to get out of the apartment,” Hakeem Pollidore, 30, said of his lost family members.
“New York City has responsibility for that. My little brothers and sister didn’t even get to live a full life. Now I’m never going to see them again. They were all fun, loving kids.”
After repeated requests for comment, a NYCHA spokesperson late Thursday night called the fatal blaze a “tragic accident.” They added the apartment was “equipped with a new smoke and carbon dioxide detector in June 2017, which was tested and determined operable in January 2019.
But a bad layout wasn’t the only cause of the deadly conflagration.
The blaze is believed to have started after Andrea fell asleep while something was cooking on the gas stove — and sources close to the investigation on Thursday said the woman was a heavy sleeper with a history of zonking out while cooking.
She had previously disabled the unit’s smoke detectors — in part because she got so many complaints about sleeping through blaring alarms, the sources added.
The mother of eight’s previous Brooklyn apartment was burned in a 2005 fire caused by unattended cooking, sources said.
It was unclear, however, whether she was the cook.
Andrea’s surviving children — none of whom were home during the recent blaze — were identified by family as Reyes, Hakeem, Sahilah Pollidore and Sharmaine Dickerson.
But her apparent hand in Wednesday’s deadly blaze has caused a rift in her extended family — which is still trying to come to grips with the sweeping loss of life.
“They think it’s the mother’s fault,” a source close to the clan said of one of the dead children’s fathers, warning that a family gathering set for Saturday could turn ugly.
Meanwhile, friends and classmates at the school attended by the younger victims mourned their lost PS 194 classmates.
Fifth-grader Miracle Smalls, 10, who was friends with Nakyra, recalled how the young girl “always helped me and we always did our homework together.”
“If I got mixed up with a question, she always explained it to me,” Smalls said.
“We always had sleepovers and stuff and now we can’t have that anymore.”
Outside the school, mourners set up balloons, candles, flowers and stuffed animals.
“I’m just speechless,” said Traci Bell, whose daughter Treasure Bell, 10, often played with Andre during recess at the West 144th Street school.
“My daughter and them were friends at the school,” said Bell — adding that her daughter, who is in the fourth grade — is “traumatized” and “scared.”
Maria Martinez, 70, the grandmother of 12-year-old Ruth Sampson, who was in the same fifth-grade class as Nakyra, said that her granddaughter is devastated by the loss.
“She’s sad. She’s crying,” Martinez said. “Doesn’t want to eat or do homework.”
Melanie Gamble, who babysat the young victims over the past five months, also stopped by the school Thursday.
“They were very happy kids, very playful. They loved to dance. Happy go lucky, no trouble. Well-mannered kids,” Gamble said.
She noted that Eli “loved Thomas the Tank Engine” and Andre “loved his YouTube shows” as well as rapper Nicki Minaj.
The family is still working out funeral plans, relatives said.
Additional reporting by Larry Celona, Tina Moore and Natalie Musumeci