The blast swallowed the firefighters as they were charging through the smoke-clogged hallway of a Brooklyn building, searching for a 67-year-old woman believed to be trapped inside her apartment.
More than 150 first responders were on the scene as the pre-dawn blaze ripped through the senior living facility operated by the New York City Housing Authority on Dec. 19, 1998, the New York Times later reported. The three men on the top floor were pinned down when the wind from open windows turned the narrow hall into a blowtorch. “Mayday!” came over the radio. The firefighters were dead within a minute.
The blaze — the deadliest to hit New York City in four years — was quickly followed by another tragedy on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on Dec. 25. Four residents were killed when a fire broke out inside a 51-story apartment building, the South Park Towers.
In both blazes, sprinklers — of lack thereof — played a critical role in the loss of life. The Brooklyn building’s sprinklers did not work. The South Park Towers did not have them on its residential floors. In the aftermath, then-mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and other officials advocated for new laws requiring sprinklers in all buildings.
The proposal, however, was met with pushback from real estate developers, including Donald Trump, who argued against retrofitting existing buildings.
The president’s past views on fire sprinklers are back in the news after a fire tore into a 50th-floor apartment at the Trump Tower in New York City on Saturday evening. Todd Brassner, a 67-year-old art dealer, was found unconscious at the scene. He later was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Due to the contentious late 1990s debate over fire safety, sprinklers were not installed in the Trump property, safeguards that perhaps may have stopped or limited this weekend’s blaze.
“The upper floors, which are residence floors, are not sprinklered,” New York City Fire Department Commissioner Dan Nigro said at a news conference, the New York Daily News reported. “But the building sure stood up quite well.”
For Jerome Rose, this weekend’s Trump Tower fire struck as a particularly grim form of deja vu. A resident of the South Park Towers in 1998, Rose became a vocal advocate for sprinkler laws following the tragedy.
“What the city of New York does not understand is that every one of these high-rise apartment buildings that doesn’t have sprinklers in them … they’re fire traps,” Rose told ABC News over the weekend. “I’m still angry because it’s a d‑‑‑ coverup and the city has covered this up for years and years.”
Following the two 1998 fires, the Giuliani administration pushed for some kind of proposal to address sprinklers in high rise buildings. ”Sprinklers are a good idea; they certainly help,” the mayor told the New York Times at the time. ”The question is just exactly how they’re used.”
The main issue was whether only new construction would be required to have sprinklers, or whether older buildings would be forced to add sprinklers as well. The latter option was deemed too expensive by Trump and other real estate developers, who estimated retrofitting structures to add sprinklers would cost up to $4 per square foot.
According to a January 1999 article in the New York Post, Trump personally “called a dozen council members to lobby against sprinklers.” He also donated $5,000 to retire the campaign debt of Peter Vallone, then the council’s speaker. Trump told the New York Times he had both ”received and placed calls” to city officials about the sprinkler proposal, including to Archie Spigner, the chairman at the time of the council’s Housing and Buildings Committee.
“After the fire at South Park Tower, I was sitting there with the owners when a phone call came in from a certain real estate developer by the name of Donald Trump,” Rose, the sprinkler advocate, recalled to ABC News. “I had gone up there to invite them to a memorial service … and I remember the phone call. They said, ‘Oh, Donald’s on the phone and he was saying that there’s going to be a big movement to retrofit all the high-rise buildings in New York with sprinklers.’”
”People feel safer with sprinklers,” Trump told the New York Times that year. ”But the problem with the bill is that it doesn’t address the buildings that need sprinklers the most. If you look at the fire deaths in New York, almost all of them are in one- or two-family houses.”
The opposition to the proposal influenced the legislation’s final version. When the city council passed the proposal in March 1999, it required sprinklers in all new residential buildings with four or more units in each apartment and the common hallway. Existing structures that underwent renovations totaling 50 percent or more of the building’s value were also required to have sprinklers.
But other older buildings — such as Trump Tower, built in 1983 — could remain sprinkler free.
Following the legislation’s passage, Trump did announce he would spend $3 million to put sprinklers in all 350 units at the Trump World Tower, a building the developer was then constructing across the street from the United Nations.
Under the 1999 legislation, owners who already had their building permits filed did not have to add sprinklers, but Trump opted to do so on his new project, which opened in 2001, the Daily News reported.
Following Saturday’s fire, Trump briefly commented about the blaze on Twitter. “Fire at Trump Tower is out,” the president wrote. “Very confined (well built building). Firemen (and women) did a great job.”
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