Tenants Blame Landlord for Seven-Alarm Fire

     MANHATTAN (CN) - Landlords of Lower East Side tenements ignored rotting walls and exposed wiring that sparked a seven-alarm fire that destroyed three buildings in 2010, the victims claim in New York Supreme Court.
     Described by The New York Times as the "City's Worst Fire in Years," the April 11, 2010, blaze started at 283 and 285 Grand St., then spread to 289, where the 22 plaintiffs in this complaint lived.
     "It was the first seven-alarm fire in the city since August 2007," the complaint states. "Over 250 firefighters and more than 60 New York City Fire Department vehicles reported to the scene to fight the blaze. At the peak of the fire, flames reportedly towered over twenty feet into the air and were visible from across the East River."
     The fire killed one man and left more than 200 people homeless, according to the Times.
     Nearly two years later, the damage still has not been repaired, the plaintiffs say.
     "After the fire, the New York City Department of Buildings ('DOB') issued a peremptory vacate order because of this damage," the complaint states. "Plaintiffs have still not been able to return to live in their homes."
     In previous lawsuits, the former tenants of 289 Grand St. have tried to stop the building's demolition - they insist it can be repaired - and have sued the landlords for negligence, according to The Lo-Down, a community-based website covering news from the Lower East Side.
     Last week, the 22 former tenants sued Fair Only Real Estate Corporation, Fair Only Realty, Solomon Scheinfeld, Ralph Sherman, Wong's Grand Street Realty, Tong's Realty, Tong's Management, and Tong's Management Corp.
     The 19-page complaint describes the conditions that the plaintiffs say caused the fire: "Years of willful neglect by the 283-285 landlords created a tinderbox that enabled the fire to spread rapidly through open voids and light shafts. Among other things, the 283-285 landlords negligently maintained 283 Grand Street's electrical wiring, leaving wiring exposed throughout the building and thus increasing the likelihood of an electrical malfunction. Despite the visibly dangerous condition of the 283 Grand Street's electric system, the 283-285 landlords and their employees and agents failed to maintain or identify problems with the electric box and the electrical system at 283 Grand Street.
     "The 283-285 landlords kept 283-285 Grand Street in a perpetual state of disrepair, allowing severe water leaks to rot out walls and invade electrical outlets. Throughout the buildings, the 283-285 landlords provided ample kindling for the fire, failing to remove garbage and rubbish, which routinely spilled out into shared hallways and stairwells and accumulated in the buildings' basements and backyards.
     "Apart from electrical issues and accumulated debris, the 283-285 landlords intentionally and recklessly failed to maintain or install proper fire stopping and other fire prevention systems in these buildings, as required under the New York City Administrative Code. Both 283 and 285 Grand Street are classified as old law tenements under the New York City Administrative Code. Although required by Sections 27-2005 and 28-301.1 of the New York City Administrative Code and Section 15-07 of the New York City Rules, the 283-285 landlords had not installed or maintained proper fire stopping in the walls, hallways, stairs, and other building partitions of 283 and 285 Grand Street. The 283-285 landlords also failed to patch holes in the walls and ceilings, leaving exposed wooden slats. The lack of any insulation or other fire stopping material allowed the fire to rapidly travel up the buildings' walls, spreading to the upper floors of the adjoining 289 Grand Street.
     "The lack of properly functioning smoke and carbon monoxide detectors or sprinkler systems in 283-285 Grand Street further contributed to the spread and extent of the fire. With proper warning, residents could have taken steps to alert the Fire Department sooner, giving the Fire Department time to prevent the fire from spreading to neighboring buildings," the complaint states.
     Making matters worse, the landlords sought major alterations to the buildings without getting the necessary permits or fire prevention materials, and ignored Fire Department citations and other warning signs that the buildings were dangerous, according to the complaint.
     "On two separate occasions in December 2009, the New York City Fire Department was dispatched to 283 Grand Street due to smoke emanating from the boiler in the basement and into the residents' apartments," the complaint states. "The Fire Department had to ventilate the building and evacuate the residents because occupants of the building had not been alerted to the smoke by functioning fire detectors. In August 2007, the Fire Department also extinguished a fire in the cellar of 283 Grand Street caused by the ignition of discarded materials in an interior stairway. No smoke detectors were present and two infants needed treatment for smoke inhalation as a result of the fire."
     The tenants say they complained to the landlord and to New York City about the unsafe conditions, but their warnings "fell on deaf ears."
     They seek punitive damages for gross negligence.
     They are represented by Joshua A. Goldberg, with Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler.