Hi-Rise Confusion: How To Escape A Fire

From Bayside to Astoria, from Flushing to Forest Hills, from Jackson Heights to Cambria Heights, they rise high into the sky — skyscrapers that house thousands of Queens residents. They range from City housing developments to luxury co-ops and condominiums, in some areas offering skylines that are second in this City only to Manhattan.
Although Queens is generally perceived as a homeowning Borough of one and two-story structures, it is in fact a place where a sizeable portion of the population is housed in structures that range from ten stories high James A. Bland housing development in Flushing to the new 42 story City Lights apartment building in Long Island City. Forest Hills alone is home to the towering Pinnacle building and Kennedy House on Queens Blvd. and the huge Parker Towers and Birchwood Towers complexes. And Bayside has the Birchwood complex, the Bay Club and other tall towers overlooking Long Island Sound.
As of this past Christmas Eve the one thing all of these buildings have in common — besides their height — is a puzzled and possibly frightened housing population that saw in horror the news reports of the Dec. 23 blaze in a building at 124 West 60th Street in Manhattan. The four-alarm blaze left four people dead — and all perished in the stairwell of the 51 story building while attempting to do what most apartment dwellers believe is the correct thing to do — escape the towering inferno by descending the staircase.
One of the principle reasons that this may be the case, The Queens Courier has discerned, is that the majority of these buildings contain prominent red-lettered signs — on every floor by the elevator banks — warning residents "In Case of Fire, Use Stairs Unless Otherwise Instructed." These signs, which are mandated by both the Buildings Dept. and the Fire Dept., also pinpoint where the stairwells are located.
"I’ve always been under the impression that the thing to do in the event of a fire was to escape by going down the stairwells," said Rose Rosen, a longtime resident in the Kennedy House. While a Queens Courier survey of residents in seven of the borough’s high-risers showed that everyone appeared to be aware that one is not supposed to use the elevators in the event of a fire, all had believed that the stairwell was the way out. They believed that, however, only until the recent deadly Manhattan fire.
That fire started when a faulty electric radiator spewed sparks onto a couch and Christmas tree in the sprawling luxury apartment of actor Macaulay Culkin’s mother. The mother fled the apartment with her children when a maid discovered the fire but they left the door propped open causing the killer smoke and flames to creep into the hall. A second doorway, from the hallway to the stairwell also was not closed, and then driven by blustreing winds, the fire ripped through the 19th floor, sending lung boring smoke up the stairways. This proved fatal to four residents who believed the stairs were their route to safety. Their bodies were all discovered in the stairwell between the 29th and 27th floor.
When fire officials spoke to the media in the aftermath of the blaze, most residents of all fireproof high-rises in the City learned for the first time that what you should do — unless the fire itself started in your own apartment — is to stay inside the apartment, cover the bottom of the front door, and call 911 for assistance.
Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen made an announcement during a press conference at Ladder Company 173 on Cross Bay Blvd. in Howard Beach last week in which the Mayor announced that Deputy Mayor Joseph J. Lhota will head a taskforce to study the issue of fire safety. The taskforce, which will be co-chaired by Dept. of Investigation Commissioner Edward Kuriansky and Commissioner Von Essen, will issue a report within 60 days concerning additional fire safety measures for high-rise buildings.
"Knowing what to do in the event of a fire in your apartment or apartment building can save your life and the lives of your loved ones," said Giuliani. "While the number of fire fatalities has declined over the past five years, and is now at its lowest point in 37 years, year-to-date New York City has had 101 civilian fire fatalities. Many of these fatalities could have been avoided if basic fire safety tips were followed.
"Last week’s fatal fire at the South Park Tower on West 60th St. pointed out the very real need for continued fire safety education," the Mayor continued. "Whether you live in a six-story brownstone or in a 30-story high-rise, the more you know — the safer you will be and the City and Fire Dept. will be an aggressive partner in this process.’
Von Essen said, "Our primary message — first, last and always — is prevention. If you remove the fire hazards from your home you can limit the risk to yourself, to your neighbors and to firefighters. Everyone should develop and practice a home fire escape plan and make sure to follow the appropriate steps for their type of dwelling. The Department’s Fire Safety and Education Unit continues to actively reinforce this subject at the community level by meeting with local groups, distribution literature, and smoke detectors, and actively pursuing new ways to inform the public about fire safety."
Spokespersons for both the Fire and Buildings Dept. had no comment for The Queens Courier as of press time about the potentially misleading nature of the signs posted in all high risers about using the stairwells, but indicated the situation would be looked into.

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