Dispatching Error, Illegal Conversions Fueled Woodside Fire

Queens Gazette - November 12, 2009

by JOHN TOSCANO

The dispatching system under which a 911 operator's error sent firefighters to the wrong Woodside address early last Saturday morning, causing a delay that resulted in at least three deaths, will be the subject of a hearing by the City Council on November 23. Previously, 911 operators transferred fire calls to Fire Department dispatchers, who then sent units from the nearest firehouse to a fire site. The system now in place permits 911 operators to dispatch firefighters directly to a fire location.

At about 2:45 a.m. on November 7, a 911 operator sent fire trucks from Engine Company 292 and Rescue 4 to 42-40 62nd St., Woodside. The actual fire scene was at the same house number, but three blocks away, on 65th Street. Almost two minutes elapsed while the firefighters sped to the correct address.

Once on the scene, firefighters found the problem compounded by the fact that the twofamily house had been illegally converted to hold five families and another seven single rooms had been added. Windows were barred and construction blocked some doors.

The basement had been illegally subdivided into four single rooms, and it was there that the three victims sustained the burns and inhaled the smoke that caused their deaths. All three were immigrants from Bangladesh. A fourth man was found badly burned trying to escape through a barred basement window. The owner of the house, 48-year-old Subir Barua, also suffered severe burns and was transported to Weill- Cornell Burn Center in Manhattan.

There were no smoke detectors in the basement and batteries were missing from the detectors on two upper floors. The cause of the fire is under investigation, although an exposed basement boiler may have sparked the blaze.

"All New Yorkers should pause and say a prayer for those who lost their lives in this horrible fire and for a speedy recovery for those injured," City Councilmember Eric Gioia, in whose 26th Council District the fire occurred, said on November 8. "Once again, New York's lack of affordable housing has led to tragedy with families forced to cram themselves into dangerous illegal conversions and building owners willing to compromise safety for profit. Illegal conversions are dangerous, not only for tenants, but for firefighters who must fight blazes in buildings with unexpected barriers. To prevent tragedies like this from happening again, identifying illegal conversions and holding landlords accountable needs to be a priority for the city."