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Saturday, January 24, 2015

After the Fire, the Fire Still Burns

Phillips Brooks - Bishop & Preacher (1893)

Those in our area could not miss the headline earlier this week of a five-alarm fire that destroyed much of an apartment complex known as Avalon at Edgewater. If you've been around a while, you may remember that the same complex burned in 2000 as construction neared completion.

I'm not really wild about the trend toward wood frame construction for high-density housing like this.  With over 400 apartments in a city block, that's a lot of stoves, candles, extension cords, heaters, potentially careless smokers, etc., in a small area.  The building is still relatively new, but what happens when wiring and other material is 30, 40, 50 years old?  It is not as if it is cheap to live there, either; I saw mention of rents upwards of $3,000 a month.  We're getting two similar complexes in our town (one by the same developers) and I expressed concern to town officials that we may be exposed to similar risks.

On Thursday the Newark Star Ledger reported that a worker's blowtorch accidentally started the blaze, and that the crew called and spoke to their supervisor for 15 minutes before dialing 9-1-1, thus critically delaying firefighters' response.  This reminded me of another fire, which took place right across the river at Pier 88 in the Passenger Ship Terminal, seventy-three years ago this coming February 8th.

The SS Normandie, luxurious flagship of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, took shelter in New York when World War 2 began. Her crew remained on board until December 1941, when she was seized by the U.S. Navy and renamed the USS Lafayette, vessel AP-53.

Workers using blowtorches to remove iron handrails in the ship's cavernous first-class lounge accidentally ignited a stack of life preservers, which were full of a very flammable substance called Kapok.  They attempted to extinguish the fire, but the ship's sophisticated sprinkler system had been abandoned by the Navy and they quickly discovered that the fittings did not match American hoses.

The fire spread rapidly; the Normandie boasted numerous large public spaces (the First Class restaurant was longer than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles) which unfortunately acted  like a giant chimney. The FDNY used every means at its disposal to pour water on the ship, and she soon began a dangerous list away from the pier.  Her Russian-born designer Vladimir Yourkevitch arrived at the scene and attempted to provide expertise that would have possibly saved her, but he was ignored.  In the middle of the night, like a suffering whale that beaches itself, the beautiful ship fell on her side in the muck.

Burned-out wreck of the USS Lafayette (ex-Normandie) lies on her side at New York's Pier 88
PHOTO CREDIT: James Vaughan. Used under Creative Commons License. Some rights reserved.

She would remain there for a year, an embarrassing waste.  The Navy considered re-purposing her as an aircraft carrier, but the damage was found to be too extensive and they focused on other priorities.  She was scrapped at Port Newark after the war's end.  Luckily, much of her interior fittings had been removed and stored before the disaster, and can be seen in places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Our Lady of Lebanon (the Maronite Catholic Cathedral in Brooklyn), and the Chicago Hilton.

Like the Avalon fire, her loss was ruled an accident, and--also similarly--the response immediately after it began played heavily into the outcome.  The design of passenger ships has changed significantly since then; the SS United States, launched 12 years later, had almost no wood on board, and both she and the SS France employed large amounts of asbestos, which was also subsequently ruled to be hazardous.  Large spaces like those aboard Normandie now have to be subdivided by fire-suppressing bulkheads and doors.

But, on land, are similar precautions being taken?  Hopefully we will not have to wait 73 years for a lesson from the Avalon fire to be learned.

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