A lesson learned
Deadly Manhattan fire believed to have started in Culkin apartments
December 23, 1998
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Four people died Wednesday in a fire that apparently began in two apartments occupied by the family of teen-age movie star Macaulay Culkin. Four firefighters also suffered burns in the Manhattan high-rise blaze. "The Culkins are fine, but they are very saddened by this tragedy," said Paul Bloch, their Los Angeles-based publicist. Apartments D and E on the 19th floor were listed in 1995 court papers filed in a custody battle for Macaulay Culkin and his siblings as belonging to the Culkin family. Neighbors said Culkin's mother, Patricia Brentrup, and at least several of the "Home Alone" star's six siblings still live there. One official source who spoke on condition of anonymity said Brentrup is registered as the tenant. Bodies of the fire victims, two men and two women, were found in the stairwells of the 27th and 29th floors, according to Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen. Von Essen said firefighters did not find anyone inside the apartments where the blaze began, apartments 19D and 19E. Building resident Steve Young said he saw members of the Culkin family in the lobby of the smoke-filled building. "I ran down the stairway ... and saw the Culkins in the lobby," Young said. It was not clear which members of the family Young saw.
Fire took 2 hours to contain
The New York City Fire Department said the fire started in the 51-story building on Manhattan's west side around 10 a.m. EST and was brought under control about two hours later. Four firefighters were burned in the blaze. The cause of the fire was not immediately known. Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who visited the scene, said the victims died of smoke inhalation in the hallways. "If people had stayed in their apartments, we might have come away without serious injuries," Giuliani said. Some residents said fire alarms could not be heard clearly when the fire broke out and that they were unsure how to respond when the corridors filled with thick smoke. Macaulay Culkin, who was raised in the apartments, recently moved out after getting married but often returned to visit. The actor reportedly earned $50 million in his childhood career. His parents, who never married despite having seven children, became involved in a break-up and custody battle three years ago. A judge in the case put Culkin's estimated $17 million fortune in the hands of his accountant after the custody battle left the young star's parents on the verge of bankruptcy.
4 Die in Hi-Rise Horror
With the memory of 3 firefighter's funerals fresh in their minds, NYC's Bravest were called upon yet again to battle a 4 alarm hi-rise fire in the posh Upper West Side of Manhattan. This time, 4 civilians bore the brunt of the Red Devil's fury.
Shortly before 1000 hours, Wednesday December 23, 1998, the Manhattan C.O. received a call from the panic stricken resident of apartment 19-D at 124 West 60 Street. The caller, Patricia Brentrup and mother of actor Macaulay Culkin, stated an electric heater caught fire and spread to the couch. She and the family maid awoke the sleeping children and fled the apartment. Sadly, the front door was left propped open.
In a virtual repeat of the fire that killed 3 firefighters 5 days prior, the hallway and stairwell were converted into a 2000-degree smokestack trapping the first due Engine. Luckily the firefighters made it out with minor burns. Within minutes fire was showing through the 19th floor apartment's windows; clouds of black smoke billowed up along the buildings 51-story facade. Unlike the fire on Vandalia Avenue, this building was not required to have sprinklers in the hallways, only a firehose and standpipe in the stairwell.
Many residents on the upper floors were lucky in their attempt to leave the building. They took the stairway early enough to avoid being disabled by smoke and heat. But for 4 others the timing just wasn't right. Between the 27th and 29th floor, 4 people died of smoke inhalation.
Some residents didn't make it out of their apartments in time and they were forced to stay inside. As heat and smoke increased they fled to their terraces in the frigid air. This was the best course of action.
In NYC all buildings over 75 feet in height must be "fireproof." The term is misleading. It does not refer to the contents of the building, only the structure itself. In optimum conditions a fire will not spread beyond an apartment or compartment provided of course that the doors are closed. That was not the case in this, or the Vandalia Avenue fire.
"Stay in your apartment," was the only advice we could give the callers. Some did. But there's no telling how one will react in a life-threatening situation