The city Department of Investigation is probing whether the Housing Authority failed to unclog chronically problematic compactor chutes before two trash fires at a Bronx development — including one that killed a 6-year-old boy, THE CITY has learned.
Aiden Hayward died after a Nov. 5 fire that began in a trash chute in a Mitchel Houses building on E. 135th Street in Mott Haven burst onto the floor where he lived, trapping him in his family’s 19th floor apartment. His father, Trevor, was badly burned trying to rescue his son, and 10 other people, including two firefighters, were injured.
The fatal blaze erupted nearly nine months after a Feb. 8 fire at another Mitchel Houses building across the courtyard. That fire also started in a trash chute that had been clogged, THE CITY found. Four tenants and a firefighter suffered smoke inhalation.
NYCHA had reopened the trash compactor in Aiden’s building several weeks before his death after cleaning out the chutes, tenants told THE CITY. But the chute apparently became clogged again, they said.
Clogged chutes are a constant problem at NYCHA. As of early November, NYCHA had a backlog of 320 chute repair requests — including some dating to 2019, according to a source familiar with the situation who spoke to THE CITY on the condition of anonymity.
NYCHA officials declined to answer THE CITY’s questions about the scope of pending chute repair requests systemwide or the status of pending requests at the Mitchel Houses prior to the two fires there.
Instead, NYCHA spokesperson Rochel Leah Goldblatt wrote in an emailed response to THE CITY, “This is currently an open investigation and we don’t comment on open investigations.”
A DOI spokesperson, Diane Struzzi, stated, “DOI is aware of this matter and declines further comment.”
‘Clean the Chutes Out’
Meanwhile, multiple tenants described problems with clogged chutes that have for years led to temporary shutdowns of the trash compactors at the Mitchel Houses, which opened in 1966 and houses 1,700 tenants.
The number of overall pending repair requests has grown over the last year from 4,700 in October 2020 to 7,200 in October 2021, records show.
Tenants said the Nov. 5 fire appeared to have started on the 10th floor, indicating that trash was piling up at that level and not making it to the compactor. When someone opened the hopper door on the 19th floor, where the child lived, the influx of oxygen created a “chimney effect” that sucked the fire straight up the chute.
Sinclair Floyd and Jasara Chavaness were in their 19th floor apartment that late afternoon with their 3-year-old son, Stokely, when they noticed bright light emanating from the hallway outside their front door. Black smoke quickly began pouring under the door.
“Within like 60 seconds you couldn’t see more than 6 inches,” Floyd said. “It was like suffocating. We went to the window to breathe.”
The family huddled by the open window for about 45 minutes before firefighters knocked on their door.
“We didn’t panic. We were pretty much okay,” Chavanese said,
“I was worried about him being that he didn’t know what was going on,” she added, pointing at her son. “I’m trying to keep him safe.”
The couple and other tenants at the 135th Street building said NYCHA shut down the compactor earlier in the year to unclog the chute, then reopened it sometime between late August and early September.
One longtime tenant, who declined to give her name, said the compactor at the E. 135th Street building has gone out consistently year after year.
“We need workers to work. You know you’ve gotta clean the chutes out? Clean the chutes out,” she said.
Cigarette Ignited First Fire
And the on-again, off-again pattern continued even after the fatal fire.
On Nov. 18, NYCHA posted notices on apartment doors notifying tenants that the compactor was functioning and the chutes were working.
But a week later, on Thanksgiving, NYCHA reversed course, posting a notice in the lobby stating, “We regret to inform you the compactor Hoppers in your building will be closed temporarily on 11/26/21 due to cleaning of the chute.”
Residents were again told to bring their trash downstairs and deposit it on the sidewalk outside the entrance. As of Thursday, bulging black plastic garbage bags mounted in front of the building.
“That’s where all the rats are,” one tenant noted.
Still, some trash appeared to wind up in the chute. Last week, while THE CITY found hopper doors bolted shut on several floors, one on the 17th floor that had been bolted shut had subsequently been pried open.
The FDNY has yet to specify the cause of the Nov. 5 fire, saying it’s still under investigation. The February fire at the Mitchel Houses building was caused by a lit cigarette tossed down the chute onto trash that had accumulated inside at the second floor level, fire marshals determined.
Fire officials told THE CITY they communicate with building owners after any trash chute fire, though they declined to discuss their discussions with NYCHA management following the two blazes at the Mitchel Houses.
NYCHA also would not respond to THE CITY’s question about what, if anything, managers have done to prevent another trash chute fire at Mitchel Houses.
Last week, a makeshift memorial of candles honoring Aiden adorned the entranceway to the E. 135th Street building. Two photos taped to the wall showed the boy smiling, but the flames in all the candles had all blown out.
A worker stationed in the lobby said she had been assigned to stand watch as a “fire guard,” telling THE CITY that the Fire Department had determined that the standpipe that provides water to the building’s sprinkler system did not meet FDNY specifications.
The FDNY did not immediately respond to THE CITY’s questions about the status of Mitchel Houses’ sprinkler system.