Deadly fires, complicated by clutter and law
Here’s an expanded version of a story Rachelle Blidner and I did (with special help from Vanessa Alvarez) on the dangers firefighters face when they enter a hoarder’s home. It may have been a factor in the July 5 death of New York fire Lt. Gordon Ambelas. (Photo by John Minchillo / Associated Press):
NEW YORK — Another danger lurked as fire and smoke swept through the upper floors of a Brooklyn public-housing high-rise: junk.
The 19th floor apartment where the blaze started last weekend was filled with it, fire officials said, creating an urban minefield that they are looking at as a potential factor in the city’s first line-of-duty death in more than two years.
Lt. Gordon Amebelas’ death July 5 came amid what officials say is an uptick in some areas of fire calls complicated by clutter, conditions the Fire Department of New York code names “Collyer’s Mansion” after the infamous 1947 case of two brothers found dead amid the floor-to-ceiling clutter in their Harlem brownstone.
Between 6 million and 15 million Americans are considered hoarders, according to the American Psychiatric Association, and experts say the behavior is particularly prevalent in older populations. Extreme examples of the disorder, in many cases a manifestation of obsessive compulsive behavior, were portrayed on the television show “Hoarders.”
Across the country, first responders are finding their own reality, with front doors blocked by piles of newspaper, living rooms littered like flea markets and hallways narrowed to nearly impassible by trash.
“We find it more common today because people have more possessions,” New York Assistant Chief Jim Hodgens said. “People have two, three TVs. People have more clothes today. I think as a society we have more stuff. It complicates the search.”
And there’s little they can do about it.
Privacy laws and red tape often prevent property owners and the authorities from knowing or understanding fully the dangers hiding behind the walls of their buildings and neighborhoods — like the electronics, old trophies and bundles of trash that were squeezed into the apartment where Ambelas was overcome, or the debris that blocked the stairway at a Jersey City, New Jersey home where a woman died in a fire Thursday.
Fire departments inspect stores, offices and other commercial structures but are usually powerless to check residences for fire hazards. With various agencies governing housing, buildings and code enforcement, they have limited authority to create or enforce laws on hoarding.
“We can’t just go in and tell someone to clean their apartment,” New York Deputy Commissioner Frank Gribbon said.
Instead, they have focused on training firefighters on handling “Collyer’s Mansion” fires, which officials say spread faster and bring more intense heat, awkward footing and maze-like passageways.
The department has also taken to noting hoarding conditions in its dispatch system when it learns of them through EMS calls or outside sources, but Gribbon said that happens infrequently.
Jason Evans, of the Dallas, Texas Fire-Rescue Department, said fires in cluttered homes feed off the excess material, producing “a much larger fire than what firefighters typically experience in a normal home.”
A fire smoldering under piles of clothes and newspapers, for example, “suddenly intensifies when it is uncovered and exposed to oxygen,” he said.
The Fire Department of New York recreates cluttered conditions at its Randall’s Island fire academy. They teach firefighters to cut through an adjoining wall if a door is blocked and, if everyone else is out, to abandon a cluttered room if conditions imperil their lives.
The department also updates firefighters on the latest tactics through bulletins on an internal website accessible at each firehouse. The last update, May 29, warned that crawling atop debris is “extremely hazardous” and could inadvertently lead them out a window.
Other departments have implemented similar protocols.
The National Fire Protection Association offers a training session, “Hoarding and the Fire Service,” and the firefighting website firehouse.com, includes several training articles including: “Hoarder Homes: Piles of Hazards for Firefighters.”
“We try to prepare for the unknowns,” Hodgens, the head of the city’s fire academy, said. “It’s unfortunate we can’t prepare for every situation.”
The U.S. Fire Administration does not track hoarding-related fires in its National Fire Incident Reporting System, nor does its counterpart in the United Kingdom.
An oft-cited study from Melbourne, Australia showed 24 percent of fire deaths over a 10-year period involved hoarding even though those types of fires accounted for one-quarter of 1 percent of fire calls. The study found hoarding fires required an additional truck and nine additional firefighters, on average, and caused $87,500 more damage than a normal structure fire.
Some U.S. departments are starting to track hoarding fires within their jurisdiction — for example, 7 of the 353 fires in a five-year span in Grand Forks, North Dakota involved clutter, one of which was deadly.
In other departments, the evidence is anecdotal, like the knee-deep debris Manchester, New Hampshire firefighters said hampered their attempts to save a 72-year-old woman in February; the railroad memorabilia that blocked the door to a burning home near Lancaster, Pennsylvania in March, killing its owner; and the extreme clutter that impeded firefighters in Portland, Oregon from saving a man in his 90s from an April fire.
Officials in Canada have implored property owners there to be more vigilant about hoarding ever since a fire at a 30-story Toronto public-housing tower burned for more than 8 hours in 2010, fueled by an apartment so packed with papers the front door opened just 18 inches. Inspectors had warned about the hazardous apartment months earlier and later found 19 others in the 713-unit building with similar hoarding-like conditions.
But fire complications from clutter are not a new phenomenon, Ken Willette, of the National Fire Protection Association, said.
Willette, a firefighter for 35 years, said awareness and media coverage of Collyer’s Mansion have increased, not the number of cases.
Firefighters used to think it happened only to “unusual people,” Willette, the manager of the association’s public fire protection division, said. “Now there’s a name for it and we pay more attention to it.”
New York fire officials declined to discuss in detail the fire that killed Amebelas citing an ongoing investigation, but they did acknowledge the apartment was “heavily cluttered with debris and belongings” as the 14-year department veteran searched for possible victims.
Noreida Santiago, who lives in the apartment next to where the fire started, said Ambelas spoke to her as the fire raged and told her to seek shelter in a back room. He told her he would knock to let her know to come out.
“But he never came,” Santiago told The Associated Press. “The others did.”
The tenant of the fire apartment, Angel Pagan, was not home when the fire began. A telephone number listed for him was repeatedly busy. In various interviews after the fire, the 51-year-old expressed sympathy to Ambelas’ family. He denied that the apartment was cluttered to excess.
Santiago, 64, said Pagan’s apartment was “full of stuff” and including multiple air conditioners and furnishings he would find on the street.
“Anything he would find, he would bring into his house,” she said.
The New York City Housing Authority, the owner of the 21-story Williamsburg building is barred by law from entering tenants’ apartments without permission unless there is a health concern or an obvious safety hazard.
Its leases require tenants to keep their apartments tidy, but it must rely on a patchwork of outside informants — from complaining neighbors or workers invited to make repairs in an apartment — to enforce that rule.
New York City said it does not separately categorize hoarding complaints to its 311 line because they are not “common.” Complaints that are received, a city spokesman said, are directed to the fire department or adult protective services.
The fire department did not say whether it was aware the apartment was cluttered before the fire, which it said started with an air conditioning power cord pinched between a bed frame and a wall. The housing authority would not answer the question either, citing the ongoing investigation.
In cases where the authority does become aware of hoarding, the remedies usually include mental health treatment, a massive cleanup process and counseling to prevent a recurrence.
Authority spokeswoman Zodet Negron said their goal is to help the resident, not evict them. A cluttered apartment in a privately owned residence, however, can be grounds for a more terse eviction.
Cecille Hershkovitz, who runs community guardian programs in New York, said hoarding accounts for a high percentage of clients facing eviction.
“It impacts on neighbors, it impacts on the building and it can create health issues and fire hazards as we’ve experienced now,” Hershkovitz said.
Dozens of communities in the U.S. have created task forces to develop hoarding mitigation protocols, following the lead of Fairfax County, Virginia, which started the first in 1989. In some jurisdictions the panels include fire marshals.
Herskovitz, a member of the New York City Housing Authority’s task force, said they work collaboratively with the authority to whittle a hoarding tenant’s possessions to essentials, important documents, photographs and a few mementos. They call in cleaning companies to haul away the excess and counselors to steer residents away from a relapse.
“It’s a very tough thing to beat,” Kristin Bergfeld, the founder of a cleaning company specializing in clearing hoarding cases, said.
“As much as we can, we make sure somebody is in place to stay with the client and keep it going,” she said. “That’s as simple as having someone come in every week to take out the recycling and trash to make sure the person doesn’t slide back and get in trouble.”