High Rise Apartment Fire – My Brush with Death

Smoke alarms in the housing projects

Smoke alarms in the housing projectsIt was a hot, humid and hazy late summer afternoon in August of 1995. I was helping a close friend of mine move and we had just finished our last load of stuff. They came from a 3 story walkup in Brooklyn, to a 2 bedroom apartment on the top floor of a 13 story building in Manhattan. My legs we’re tired and I was beat—evident by the sweat and grime that accumulated on my face from travelling back and forth by subway on a muggy New York summer day. As soon as I knew the heavy lift was over, I grabbed an ice cold beer from the fridge and asked to take a shower.

Finally, feeling like I could rest my sore muscles under a hot steamy shower, I began to undress in the bathroom. I only got as far as my shirt when suddenly, I heard screams coming from the living room. Frantic screams—that unmistakably indicated something bad was happening. I couldn’t imagine what it was. I didn’t hear any gun shots and I didn’t smell any smoke, yet! I threw my shirt back on and ran into the living room to to find thick bellows of black smoke coming in from the window.

Now the housing authority is supposed to be up to date on fire protection and usually install the best smoke detectors throughout the building, but I didn’t hear a single smoke detector go off. Even if they were going off on other floors, the ongoing hum of the city, along with horns and sirens make you tune out certain noises. So the only notification I heard came from my friends.

I remember thinking to myself, “Is this the way I am going to die, NO!” and my survival instinct kicked in. I grabbed a couple of towels and wet them under the faucet and passed them out to my friends to cover our faces with. Still I do not hear any smoke alarms. Just smoke continuing to come in through the living room window. I remember that I knew the brick housing projects in New York City are fireproof and a sense of comfort came over me knowing that I would not burn to death – as long as we kept the front door closed. But it went away when I realized that fireproof doesn’t mean smoke proof. And most people who die in fires, die from smoke inhalation. Remember, even with the best smoke detectors installed, if the batteries do not have a charge they wont go off.

Since the smoke was billowing in through the living room window, we all went to the back room of the apartment and leaned out the window for air. Since they just moved in they didn’t have the phone turned on yet. Mobile phones weren’t as widespread at this time either. So we hollered down to people sitting in the courtyard yelling “Call the fire department! Help! Call the fire department!”, but nobody moved a muscle, and our calls for help went unanswered. It was always strange to me that there were never fire escapes installed in the projects. I felt like I needed to make an escape and the only way was to brave the stairs.

After checking with everyone else to see who wanted to join I decided to make my escape, alone. Late afternoon had turned to dusk as I darted into the dark, black and smokey hallway—and for some reason all the lights were out. The air was thick like being overcome by exhaust and it was hard to breath. Fortunately my cousin also lived in the projects and I knew how to find my way to the stairwell. I wrapped the towel tighter against my face and I began down the stairs. As I descended to the 12th floor, the smoke was getting thicker and I could also feel an intensifying heat the further down I went. I realized that I was walking in to danger and I turned around and ran back up the stairs. The only safe place to go was back in to the apartment.

I reentered the apartment, and continued back to the room to lean out the window for air. After a while the black smoke had turned to white and it seemed that the fire department had arrived. A short time later, the smoke dissipated. The idea that we were going to survive grew and a sense of calmness came upon us.

Throughout this entire time I didn’t hear any smoke detectors going off or any other type of alarm. My hunch is that the buildings were equipped with independently operating detectors rather than a hardwired interconnected smoke alarm. What’s more, in a building of this type an interconnected, hardwired smoke detector system should have been used. Even if the best smoke detectors are ringing on the second floor, they will be inaudible to people upstairs. An interconnected system would ring all alarms even if just one unit detected smoke.

So, if you’re wondering how the fire started in the first place, this is the story as I heard it. Some lunatic decided to light a mattress on fire in the stairwell on the second floor. It ended up igniting the paint on the walls of the stairwell from the second to tenth floor. This is precisely where I was headed during my failed escape. And thankfully I turned around because my escape route would have been a death trap. To me, this was a frightening, life changing event that I’ll never forget however, in the overall scheme of things it’s just another day in New York.