The untimely and gruesome death of anyone should give us pause, but when it involves a firefighter crashing through burning doors to rescue a stranger in a Bronx firetrap, we cringe, fixate ourselves on the headlines for a day or two and show our proper respect. We put on the grand display of an official departmental funeral as the Mayor and Fire Commissioner stand solemnly, bagpipes fill the air with the sounds of “Amazing Grace,” and the disconsolate faces of the widows and children are shown on the front pages of the tabloids.
Once we expiate our sadness, sophisticated New Yorkers know what to do: We change the channel. It’s the Oscars and the Olympics and The Gates. Gee, it’s too bad about those firefighters who jumped to their deaths in the Bronx, huh?
At the funerals for the two men who died from their falls after being trapped inside a building, no one from the firefighters’ union was gauche enough to hand out copies of a letter that Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta and Buildings Commissioner Patricia Lancaster wrote to The New York Times last year. It was a day, after all, to be respectable, the most insidious form of obsequiousness.
The Mayor’s commissioners wrote that “illegal conversions of buildings kill people.” City records show that Ms. Lancaster’s agency had full knowledge that the Bronx building where the two firefighters died had outstanding violations. Ms. Lancaster’s people had been to the site for more than a dozen complaints, yet we are now asked to believe that none of her staffers noticed the partitioned apartments, renting for $100 a week (cash preferred), that forced the firefighters to choose between being incinerated or jumping four stories and hoping to survive.
Mayor Bloomberg, the technology Mayor, has yet to figure out how to transmit information about such violations to his firefighters before they enter a potentially dangerous building. It’s not complicated and it costs nothing. The courageous men and women of our Fire Department are sent into these buildings on a regular basis, first without the proper ropes and safety equipment, but then without even so much as a computer printout of outstanding violations.
So what is a firefighter’s life worth anyway? The families of firefighters killed on 9/11-remember the radios that didn’t work on that terrible day?-received around $1 million each. In the Staten Island Ferry accident of October 2003, which killed 11 people, the city has sought to limit its liability to just over $14 million.
As the Mayor prattles on about running the city like a corporation and preens himself over the millions of calls to the city’s information line, 311, his pet peeve is the amount of money paid out to the families of those who die thanks to the city’s negligence. Why, if it weren’t for those ambulance-chasing lawyers, the city would be in much better financial straits. “Down with the lawyers!” is the billionaire’s mantra, even as his kingmaker turned lobbyist, former Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari, is suing the city to collect more money for the relatives of those who died in the ferry disaster. Over $2 billion in claims have been filed as a result of the accident.
But the disgrace of the firefighters’ deaths in the Bronx is that Ms. Lancaster’s minions knew about these death traps and did nothing except write a summons. In April, her chief of staff told City Council Minority Leader Jim Oddo that there are “thousands” of such buildings in the five boroughs, but there wasn’t much the agency could do about them. (The agency is so bad that Mr. Bloomberg hired a $400,000 consultant last year to study corruption.)
It’s not just Ms. Lancaster and Mr. Scoppetta who have ignored this time bomb. In October 2003, the Mayor himself, after telling Staten Island residents to report illegal buildings, was told about homes that had been carved up into illegal apartments. The owner of one such firetrap is a 35-year-old police officer who retired on disability. The Mayor said that he personally “reads 311 summaries every week” and, if nothing is done, he calls his commissioners.
Ms. Lancaster sent her inspectors; they wrote a summons. Eighteen months later, the fine hasn’t been paid. The owner hired a Republican lawyer close to Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro, a Bloomberg supporter. The retired cop brags to his neighbors that he has “clout” and that “nothing will ever be done” to close him down. So far, he’s been proven right.
If a blaze ever erupts in his building and a firefighter dies as a result, we will surely hear the sad songs again. Until, that is, something far more important-a tennis match, perhaps-distracts us once more from thinking about how to prevent the death of our city’s princes.