By Joy Bergmann
Two residents of 15 W. 90th Street were transported to Mount Sinai Morningside [St. Luke’s] Hospital after FDNY units responded to a “smoke condition” on Thursday around 12:50 p.m., FDNY officials and tenants told WSR.
The building is part of NYCHA’s WSUR Brownstones. Cynthia Tibbs, WSUR Brownstones Tenants Association President, was one of the injured.
WSR spoke with Tibbs and two other building sources. All three claimed the incident began when an electric space heater caught fire in an elderly man’s second floor apartment. [FDNY’s press office would only say the cause is “under investigation.”]
Tibbs said the apartment was already well heated. Tibbs claimed the man told her he had been using the space heater to help dry some walls he had been washing to address a mold issue.
“The heater was on the floor. It surged and suddenly caught fire,” Tibbs said, recollecting the conversation. “He got his fire extinguisher. But when he pulled the pin, nothing came out. He panicked and threw a wet towel on [the heater], causing it to explode. You don’t throw water on electrical fires.” [More on that from FDNY below.]
Black smoke quickly filled the man’s apartment and traveled up to Tibbs’ third-floor unit. “There was so much smoke, I couldn’t see,” says Tibbs. “It engulfed my entire apartment.” Her unit’s smoke and carbon monoxide detectors went off, but only after she was already struggling to leave the apartment with her 34-year-old son, she said.
The building’s stairwells do not have their own smoke/CO detectors, Tibbs explained. She’s working with NYCHA to change this and feels such detectors would alert residents sooner to dangerous conditions.
Tibbs says she suffered smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning, as did her son. He refused transport to the hospital, but Tibbs, who has asthma and mobility issues, stayed overnight for treatment. The elderly man also was treated at the hospital, and has been released, she said.
From the moment word spread about the incident, community members rallied to aid their neighbors.
A NYCHA manager and a representative from Council Member Gale Brewer’s office arrived at the scene while rescue operations were still underway, Tibbs said. Community Board 7 members reached out and are providing residents with air purifiers. Other locals have stepped up to provide the man with replacement items. And NYCHA clean-up crews were already at work on Friday, removing soot and preparing to repaint walls.
“They were 100 percent responsive,” says Tibbs. “I’m overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and concern.”
In an emailed response to WSR, a NYCHA spokesperson said no residents were displaced and NYCHA is continuing to work with tenants to provide them with any services they need.
New Yorkers are especially alert to the dangers of space heaters this week, following the devastating Bronx fire on Sunday that killed at least 17 people after a unit malfunctioned.
The NYCHA spokesperson said the agency provides all residents with an FDNY safety booklet that directs, “If you need a portable heater, only use portable electrical heaters approved for indoor use (with enclosed heating elements). Do NOT use your stove or oven to heat your apartment. Do NOT use kerosene or propane heaters, which are dangerous and illegal for indoor use in New York City.”
NYCHA’s rental packet also offers these safety tips, she said:
Call 311…for a fire inspection if you are unsure your heat source is safe.
Check the power current required to operate the portable heater. Make sure that it can safely operate on a standard household electrical circuit.
Check the heater from time to time when it is on, and turn it off when you leave the apartment or when you go to sleep.
Never leave children alone in a room when a portable space heater is on.
Keep all household materials that can catch on fire, including furniture, drapes, carpeting and paper, at least three feet away from the heat source.
Never drape clothes over a space heater to dry.
WSR asked an FDNY spokesperson about what to do if an electrical space heater catches fire.
In general terms, he said, first call 911 for FDNY assistance. Then, if you can safely unplug the unit, do so as quickly as possible. Deploying a fire extinguisher or baking soda can help put out the flames. But, “water and electricity don’t mix; it will cause a reaction.”