The New York City Housing Authority’s failure to address repairs and enforce fire safety protocols contributed to explosive fires that wound up killing two tenants, including a 6-year-old boy, and seriously injuring several other public housing residents, according to a city Department of Investigation report released Thursday.
The report looked at the circumstances leading up to 2021 trash duct fires inside the Mitchel Houses in the South Bronx and the Wise Tower on the Upper West Side, Manhattan, as well as a fatal fire at the Riis Houses in the East Village caused by faulty e-scooter batteries.
In all three cases, DOI found that NYCHA’s inaction allowed dangerous conditions to persist, reporting that their investigation “exposed deficiencies in a range of fire safety protocols” that included “repair and maintenance of trash chute hopper doors and other relevant fire safety elements in the developments.”
In releasing the report, DOI Commissioner Jocelyn Strauber stated, “Three fires in 2021, two that tragically led to fatalities, including a 6-year-old boy, showed that NYCHA needs to improve its fire safety procedures across the board and better protect its tenants.”
DOI’s investigation began in late 2021 as THE CITY was looking into a Nov. 5, 2021, fire in a 19th-floor Mitchel Houses apartment at 303 E. 135th St. that fire officials believe was caused by someone tossing a cigarette into a clogged trash chute. When a trash chute door on an upper floor was opened, a chimney effect resulted, driving smoke and fire racing up to that floor.
A 6-year-old boy, Aiden Hayward, died, and his father was seriously injured trying to save him. Weeks later, THE CITY discovered prior incidents that should have served as warning signs. Those included a trash chute fire at another Mitchell Houses building that injured four tenants and a firefighter.
At the time of the fatal fire, THE CITY also reported that NYCHA had 320 open repair requests for broken or clogged trash chutes across its developments, including some dating back to 2019.
Then on Dec. 28, 2021, a similar conflagration erupted at Wise Tower, a NYCHA development managed by a private company under a program to raise money for the authority known as Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD).
In that case, tenants told THE CITY a chute door had been missing for months and that hallway fire alarms did not go off. DOI found that a missing hopper door on the 10th floor caused the fire and smoke to rocket up the chute and onto that floor.
With both the Mitchel and the Wise fires, DOI found that “the spread of the smoke was likely due in part to NYCHA’s and private management’s failure to properly the quality and integrity of building components relevant to fire safety, prioritize the prompt repairs or reinstallations of trash chute hopper doors and ensure staff is adequately trained for this work.”
DOI found a cigarette dropped into a clogged duct at Mitchel likely started a fire on the second floor, while damaged hopper doors on the 19th and 20th floors created the chimney effect that sucked smoke and fire up through the building.
Weeks before the fire, DOI found, tenants had informed NYCHA that the 20th floor hopper door had fallen off. The superintendent of that building told DOI he did “not recall” the report of the missing door, but DOI found a repair order he’d generated scheduling its repair. Asked about this, the superintendent “was unable to provide a reason” for his memory loss about the repair.
The maintenance worker assigned to the task told DOI “he told the Superintendent that he did not know how to perform this repair,” and as a result the job was not completed as requested. Records show the missing door was ultimately replaced — four days after the fire.
DOI also found that in January 2021, NYCHA had been warned that a device called a “heat controller” that triggers sprinklers if compactors exceed specified heat levels was missing in the compactor of the building where the fire would erupt 11 months later. The vendor told NYCHA this needed to be corrected “ASAP.”
“Emergency repairs” were performed on the “heat controller” — but only after the fire was extinguished “and the building was safe to enter,” DOI reported.
On Christmas Day, Wise Tower tenants called the private management’s hotline to report the missing hopper door. A tragic chronology of bureaucratic bungling followed, DOI found.
The manager, PACT Renaissance Collaborative, acknowledged that “hopper door” was not considered a term that would trigger an emergency response via the hotline, so a repair ticket wasn’t generated until Dec. 27, the day before the fire. The property manager contacted maintenance staff, but was told “they had no staff to handle the repair due to the surge of COVID-19 cases.”
A porter was assigned to place cardboard over the opening, though it’s not clear if that happened.
The next day, the fire roared up the duct and wreaked havoc. Two tenants wound up hospitalized due to severe smoke inhalation.
After the fire, the 10th floor hopper door was discovered sitting in a slop sink and reinstalled over the chute opening, DOI stated. Two weeks later, DOI investigators visiting Wise found more non-functioning hopper doors that had been taped shut, not screwed shut per the management firm’s written protocols.
In an April 2022 report, the federal monitor overseeing NYCHA indicated that the potential for disaster was not limited to Mitchel and Wise, stating that the fatal Mitchel Houses fire “underscored the need to address a chronic problem throughout NYCHA’s portfolio — broken trash chute doors that cannot close, posing a hazard if a fire breaks out at a lower level in the chute.”
The fire at Riis Houses erupted early on the morning of Dec. 16, 2021, when a lithium-ion battery in one of several e-scooters stored inside an apartment burst into flames. Fire inspectors reported that residents of the apartment told them the unit’s entry door was “not functioning properly which ‘trapped’ them inside the apartment during the fire.”
Firefighters broke down the door and found a female tenant “lying prone, head facing the door” and a male tenant in a bedroom, “lying prone, facing the doorway, about one foot away from the doorway.” The man’s body “was heavily fire damaged.” He was later pronounced dead, while the woman was severely injured.
Two teenage residents of the unit managed to exit a rear window from the fourth-floor apartment and shinny down a water pipe to safety.
DOI got conflicting information about whether NYCHA had at least some knowledge that there were e-devices inside the apartment before the fire.
Records show a maintenance worker performed an inspection a month before the fire and told DOI he hadn’t seen any e-devices. But another NYCHA employee told investigators that he was aware “that the deceased person operated an eBike repair business out of the apartment,” the report states.
DOI did not find any evidence that problems with the front door lock had trapped the tenants. The door had been damaged repeatedly by the tenants before the fire, and NYCHA had performed all requested repairs, DOI found.
DOI also noted what THE CITY reported last year: that the watchdog agency had warned NYCHA in 2018 about the dangers of allowing tenants to store e-bikes, e-scooters and any other vehicles that relied on potentially volatile lithium-ion batteries inside apartments.
Last year NYCHA proposed possibly banning storage of the devices from NYCHA properties, but as of this week it had yet to enact an actual ban after pushback from groups noting that so many New Yorkers — particularly delivery workers — need e-powered devices to make a living.
As the number of food delivery workers relying on e-bikes and e-scooters has soared in recent years, so has the number of fires citywide caused by the lithium-ion batteries that power these devices: in 2019 there were 30; last year there were 220.
So far this year, there have been 45 more. Fire officials say these blazes — which ignite quickly and are difficult to put out — have caused 12 deaths and nearly 300 injuries since 2021.
At least 34 of those lithium-ion battery fires have erupted on NYCHA properties since 2021, including two that have resulted in deaths.
Besides the Riis Houses e-scooter fire, there was an August e-bike battery fire at the Robinson Houses in East Harlem that killed a woman and a 5-year-old child, and an e-bike battery fire at the Farragut Houses in Brooklyn Nov. 26 resulted in 18 tenants and one firefighter transported to nearby hospitals.
In conjunction with the new DOI report findings, Strauber recommended NYCHA more aggressively address trash chute repairs, ensure fire suppression systems are functioning and limit the storage of e-bikes and scooters that rely on lithium-ion batteries.
Commissioner Strauber emphasized that NYCHA management began reforming their protocols last year, including reinspecting 22,000 hopper doors system-wide, replacing 11, repairing more than 1,300 and cleaning up another 2,900.
“The prioritization of hopper door repairs changed completely shortly after these fires,” she said. “They used to have a very low priority level and they got moved up and that was a pretty significant problem.”
NYCHA spokesperson Barbara Brancaccio said the authority has revised its fire safety policies, adding funding “to address the trash disposal, fire suppression and building infrastructure issues” referenced by DOI.
She also noted the e-bike storage ban proposal was still under consideration, although the comment period for that ended in September. She provided no estimate on when NYCHA will decide whether to go forward with some type of ban.
The Mitchel Houses superintendent who couldn’t explain why he couldn’t recall the repair order he’d placed for the missing hopper door was demoted and transferred to another development. No sanctions were imposed on any other NYCHA employees regarding the failure to replace the missing heat controller in the Mitchel compactor.
DOI has in the past documented incidents of NYCHA employees filing false documents to cover up mistakes on issues such as lead paint cleanup, but in this case, Commissioner Strauber noted, “We haven’t seen any suggestions that records were tampered with or that they tried to make it seem like they’d done repairs earlier.”