Volume 78 - Number 38 / February 25 - March 3, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photos by J.B. Nicholas

The fire, which reportedly started on the second floor of 22 James St., spread to the six-story building’s top floors.

1 killed, 27 are injured in Chinatown tenement fire

By Albert Amateau

A fire that raged through a six-story Chinatown tenement on Tuesday morning Feb. 24 killed one man and injured 27 other residents.

The dead man was identified as Tony Wong, 32. Four of the injured were seriously hurt, including at least one of three people who jumped from the fifth- and sixth-floor windows of the 100-year-old building at 22 James St.

Cause of the fire was still under investigation at press time on Tuesday.

The first alarm came in at 3:37 a.m., when the temperature was 22 degrees and winds were gusting to 30 miles per hour. Water from the fire hoses froze when it hit the ground. By the time the fire was declared under control at 8:50 a.m., four alarms had rung and 168 firefighters were on the scene. Eight firefighters sustained minor injuries.

The fire apparently started on the second floor, according to an Associated Press account that quoted Patrick McNally, Fire Department chief of operations. Parts of the roof and some of the floors collapsed, but no other buildings on the block were damaged.

The Red Cross evacuated about 200 people in 60 families from the building and from the two tenements on either side of it. The residents, many of whom speak only Chinese, were taken to temporary shelter in the Hamilton- Madison House community room nearby.

Strong winds and freezing temperatures made it harder for firefighters to battle the blaze.

A spokeswoman for New York Downtown Hospital on Gold St. told The A.P. that eight people, including the man who died in the fire, had been brought to the hospital on Gold St. One of the injured was transferred to the burn unit of the Weill Cornell Medical Center. Two Downtown Hospital patients were released before noon. Others injured in the fire were taken to Bellevue or Beth Israel hospitals.

Last month, a Department of Buildings inspection found defective electrical wiring in ceiling fixtures at 22 James St. and violation notices were issued. The violations were resolved by Jan. 28, according to D.O.B. records.

City Councilmember Alan Gerson and Borough President Scott Stringer visited the community room at Hamilton-Madison House, at 50 Madison St., where the survivors gathered.

Gerson noted that Engine 4, the company in the firehouse on South St. at Gouverneur Lane, was one of those responding to the alarm. Engine 4 is one of the company’s that the Fire Department has ordered to be closed during selected evening-duty tours to save on overtime costs in the financial crisis.

“Fortunately, Engine 4 was operating on the Monday night tour,” Gerson said later. “It just proves that we can’t make do with less. Engine 4 is also on the city list for permanent closing.”

The building that burned was not among the worst in the area but, dating as it does from the turn of the century, it did not have a sprinkler system, Gerson said.

“These buildings really have to be upgraded to allow sprinklers to be installed,” Gerson said. “We recently sponsored a pilot program with Asian Americans for Equality and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the Tenant Acquisition Rehabilitation and Preservation program — TARP — which is about to receive a $10 million grant from the L.M.D.C.,” he said, referring to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. “It could fund sprinkler upgrading in buildings like these. It’s not enough, of course, but it’s something the city should support.”

The two buildings on either side of the fire location had passed an inspection shortly after 2 p.m. Tuesday, and residents were expected to return once H.P.D. signed off on the habitability of the individual apartments, Gerson said.

Gerson noted that the building that burned had a history of electrical wire violations, but did not appear to have any outstanding problems.

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