Arsonists Take Toll On New York City

New York City, like other major American cities, has had more than its share of arson-related fires and the death and destruction they leave.

The city has suffered from the heinous acts of arsonists since its earliest days. Because of its staggering fire statistics year after year, the FDNY's Bureau of Fire Investigation is the largest and busiest in the world.

In recent years, firefighters as well as the citizens they protect have suffered terribly at the hands of arsonists. Here are some of their stories.

Subway Fire Bombing

On the afternoon of Dec. 21, 1994, as a Brooklyn-bound subway train was approaching the Fulton Street station, a passenger was attempting to set a home-made fire-bomb to go off in a tunnel farther down the track. Instead, the bomb ignited in the bomber's lap.

A blue and white flash filled the subway car with a napalm-like blast. Flames and smoke quickly filled the car. As the doors opened to the station platform, passengers crawled, stumbled or ran out of the train. Burned and dazed, many seriously injured, the passengers began filling the platform. Some of the passengers, in shock, wandered around up into the station area.

Arriving fire, police and EMS units sprang into action, caring for the injured. In all, 48 people including the bomber were injured by the fire bomb, many forced to spend weeks in the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center Burn Unit. The bomber was charged with 47 counts of attempted murder.

Firefighter Fatalities

On Oct. 8, 1995, an arson fire took the life of a member of Rescue Company 4 in Queens. Firefighter Peter McLaughlin was killed while battling an apartment house blaze set by a drunken man distraught over breaking up with his wife. The suspect was later captured and charged with murder.

(On Feb. 25, 1992, Lieutenant Thomas Williams of Rescue 4 died from injuries sustained during a three-alarm fire in Queens. The fire was apparently arson for profit. After an exhausting investigation by fire marshals and police, arrests were made.)

Stairwell Fires

A rash of fires set in the stairwells of New York City high-rise housing projects caused majors concerns as the situation appeared to be reaching epidemic proportions. The FDNY was faced with an unusual situation: relatively minor rubbish fires developed into fireballs of unbelievable intensity that raced up stairways.

In June 1995, a rubbish fire started in the basement of the Forest Houses on Trinity Place in the Bronx raced up 13 floors. A similar fire occurred in the Baruch Houses on FDR Drive in Manhattan on Aug. 19. Brooklyn was the scene of a stairwell fire in the Marlboro Houses on West 11th Street on Oct. 11. The Forest Houses in the Bronx suffered another stairwell fire on Oct. 13. Since 1992, there had been more than 30 housing project stairway fires and the residents of all the city's project buildings were becoming alarmed. The news media was slowly picking up the story as word spread of the unusual fires.

Tragedy finally struck on Nov. 4. A few minutes after 1 P.M., a mattress was set on fire in a third-floor stairwell in the Frederick Douglass Houses on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The small fire ignited the oil-based wall paint; within seconds, flames roared up the stairway toward the roof. On the stairs between the eighth and ninth floors, two friends were sitting on the steps talking. Moments later, they were consumed by the blast of heat and fire that filled the stairway.

That fire broke the story across New York City's media. The two people killed in the stairway were remote from the original fire and apparently were killed as the fireball raced up the stairs fueled by the highly flammable paint. The 600,000 people who live in the 330 projects across the city were asking for safe buildings. Tenant groups were calling for an investigation.

Reporters continued digging and discovered that as early as 1990, FDNY officials had warned the city's Housing Authority of the problem of flash fires in stairways. The unique fire situation apparently occurs when rubbish, discarded mattresses or other flammables are set on fire in stairways. Flames from the small fire ignites layers of oil-based paint (some buildings have as many as 25 coats of paint). If any door above the fire is open or ajar (roof door or door to corridor or hallway), a draft is created that acts like a chimney flue and draws the fire upward, igniting the painted walls above.

Six days after the fatal blaze, another fireball occurred in the stairs of a Harlem housing project, the General Grant Houses at 55 LaSalle St. Flames roared from the fourth floor up the stairs and through the bulkhead door on the 20th floor. Housing Authority tenants across the city were in a near panic. They are clambering for the application of fireproof paint to hallways and staircases.

City Hall stepped in and a $10 million program to coat the stairways with fire retardant paint was announced and work began in the beginning of December. Then another flash fire occurred, in the Jefferson Houses in Manhattan this time in stairs freshly painted with "fire retardant" paint. A second fire was not stopped by the new paint and City Hall made a major decision.

On Feb. 5, 1996, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced a new program to strip the many layers of oil-based paints from the walls of all the staircases. The mayor said the cost would be roughly $100 million and the work would take years to complete. While the paint certainly fueled the fires to tremendous proportions, and the removal of old paint and the application of safer paint will lessen the severity and perhaps even stop the developing fires, the ultimate cause of these blazes was arson, and fresh paint is not the solution but it is the best the city can do.

Token Booth Fires

With the destructive and deadly stairwell fires still in the headlines, New York City was again victimized by a vicious case of arson. This time, the subway system was the scene of what would become another horrible death of an innocent person. At first the incendiary fire seemed to be a copycat crime mimicking a crazed character in the movie "Money Train." It was later labeled by investigators as a holdup attempt gone bad.

On Sunday, Nov. 26, 1995, two men entered the subway station at Kingston and Throop avenues in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn at about 1:45 A.M. It was reported that the two carried a stolen M-1 carbine rifle with a banana clip and a clear plastic soda bottle filled with gasoline. The two men approached the token booth being manned by 50-year-old Harry Kaufman, who had worked for the Transit Authority since 1973. Kaufman was working an extra shift to save enough money to send his son to college.

Without warning, one of the men squirted a large amount of the accelerant through the opening in the token booth and ignited it, causing a huge explosion. Kaufman was literally sent flying, on fire, through the air and out of the demolished booth. Unconscious and severely burned, he was on the floor of the subway station for a period of time before coming to. With his clothes completely burned off, Kaufman made his way to the street, where he met responding police officers. The suspects had fled the scene and the clerk, suffering burns covering 80 percent of his body, was rushed to the Burn Unit of the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. Two days later, Kaufman died from complications associated with his massive burns.

A series of similar incidents began to occur. On Dec. 9, an inferno erupted around a female token clerk at the Hunter's Point Avenue subway station in Long Island City. The clerk was able to escape the booth uninjured and a fire extinguishing system controlled the flames.

Some in the news media and politicians were blaming the scene in the movie for the outbreak of token booth attacks but subway booths had been the targets of arsonists for years.

The attack that claimed the life of Harry Kaufman was the first such case since the late 1980s, when there was a string of at least five incidents of flammable liquids being sprayed into the booths. When a clerk was burned to death in a 1988 attack, the Transit Authority began installing ultra-sensitive fire extinguishers in the token booths to prevent future tragedies. The system in Kaufman's booth, however, was reportedly rendered inoperative to allow cigarette smoking in the booth.

Terror On 125th Street

Flames and gunfire are all too familiar to those who live in the section of Manhattan known as Harlem. Many of the locals knew trouble was brewing as picketers marched outside a West 125th Street clothing store. Some threats had been made but the level of violence that erupted on Dec. 8, 1995, took everyone by surprise.

A lone gunman entered the store and ended up filling the store, the street and the city with gunshots, fire, anger, hate and death. The gunman had walked into Freddy's Fashion Mart during the morning and at gunpoint ordered all the blacks within the store to leave. He reportedly cried, "No more shopping here!" Then he turned and without warning emptied his .38-caliber revolver. Construction workers completing alterations in the store at the time were his initial targets. Four people lay dead on the floor as the gunman herded the remaining store workers together and moved them toward the basement.

Police were on the scene in minutes and wounded victims advised them of the gunman and his hostages. As the police shifted into their hostage negotiations mode, smoke was beginning to issue from the store. At 10:22 A.M., the fire department was dispatched to the reported building fire with the added information: police active shots fired. Five minutes later units were on the scene and a 10-75 (report of a working fire) was transmitted.

The smoke condition was getting worse and fire was becoming obvious within the structure but police and fire department supervisors on the scene were understandably reluctant to commit cops or firemen into the gunman's sights. A second alarm was transmitted at 10:32.

Reports were received from the rear of the fire building that when a door was forced, another wounded victim was located. A combined police and fire department entry was made to the front of the store. A hoseline was moved in and the powerful stream was hitting visible fire. Firefighters who normally would have been crawling anyway were trying their best to reduce their profiles even more as they attacked the flames. On either side of the hose teams were heavily armed and vested police officers who did not have the luxury of being able to crawl. With automatic weapons at the ready they moved in covering the hose teams. At 10:49, a third alarm was transmitted.

Firefighters conducted their normal searches and under heavy smoke and high heat conditions made their way cautiously into the cellar. At approximately 11:21, firefighters found the gunman and his three hostages dead in the cellar. Firefighters, police officers, fire marshals and detectives sifted through the debris, looking for answers as to what had happened and why.

The shooting was apparently related to an ongoing dispute between the clothing store and a record store that rented space within the building. The problem began to develop racial overtones and eventually ended in violence.

Paul Hashagen, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an FDNY firefighter assigned to Rescue Company 1 in Manhattan. He is also the chief department instructor for the Freeport, NY, Fire Department.