Arsonists Take Toll On New York City

Paul Hashagen recounts several arson fires that ended in destruction and disaster, taxing the firefighters and other emergency responders around the 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...


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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.

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