Donald Trump in the late 1990s helped lobby New York City officials to drop a proposal to require expensive fire sprinklers in older apartment buildings, including his Fifth Avenue condominiums at Trump Tower, according to a safety expert involved in the debate.
“He [Trump] fought against it. He did not want sprinkler protections in those buildings because of the cost,” John Viniello, former president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association, said in an interview. Viniello said he was involved in discussions with city officials and opponents in the real estate industry.
As discussions continued, Trump called city officials to argue against the sprinkler measure, citing concerns about installation costs and vandalism, according to news reports at the time.
It is unclear whether a sprinkler system would have controlled a fire that engulfed a Trump Tower apartment Saturday, killing a longtime resident and injuring six firefighters, none critically.
Todd Brassner, 67, an art dealer known as a friend of pop art icon Andy Warhol, was found unconscious and unresponsive when firefighters arrived Saturday at Unit 50C. Brassner’s apartment was “virtually entirely on fire,” New York City Fire Department Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro said. Brassner died later that night.
Brassner purchased his unit in 1996, property records show. It was valued at $2.5 million in a 2016 bankruptcy filing.
City fire officials are investigating the blaze and the extent of smoke damage to the building, where Trump maintains a penthouse residence. Nigro said there was a “considerable amount of smoke” throughout the building. Two hundred firefighters and emergency responders arrived at the building about 5:30 p.m. Saturday.
“This was a very difficult fire. As you can imagine, the apartment is quite large, we are 50 stories up. The rest of the building had a considerable amount of smoke,” Nigro said.
Trump tweeted his praise for the firefighters’ response, calling the fire “very confined (well built building).” Nigro said he agreed that the building’s fire-resistent construction helped to contain the blaze.
Trump has not commented on the death or injuries. The Trump Organization did not comment on Trump’s lobbying efforts on the sprinkler issue but said in a statement that it was in “constant communication with the New York Fire Department, who arrived on the scene within minutes of receiving our call.” It said it sent prayers and condolences to Brassner’s family.
Fire safety advocates said the Trump Tower blaze highlights a gap in safety requirements for high-rise residential apartments around the city built before 1998, when fatal fires in two high-rise apartments prompted efforts by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and City Council members to expand sprinkler requirements.
“Sprinklers always save lives. It’s a pretty commonly known fact,” said Robert O’Brien, a retired New York firefighter and member of the International Fire and Life Safety Experts, in an interview.
In 1998, a blast swallowed 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.
Following the two 1998 fires, the Giuliani administration pushed for a proposal to address sprinklers in high-rises. “Sprinklers are a good idea; they certainly help,’’ Giuliani told the New York Times at the time. “The question is just exactly how they’re used.’’
The new proposal immediately faced resistance from the real estate industry.
Trump, whose signature tower was completed in 1983, and other leading developers expressed concerns about installation costs and said sprinklers would be prone to vandalism, according to a 1998 Times article. They worried that some buyers would object to the look of the sprinkler systems.
Trump told the Times that he had “received and placed calls” from and to officials from the city government about the proposed legislation.
Archie Spigner, then-chairman of the New York City Council’s Housing and Buildings Committee, told the Times in 1998 that he had received a call from Trump, expressing his concerns.
Spigner said in an interview with The Washington Post he could not recall the debate or Trump’s role in it. But he said he supported requirements for more sprinklers: “Sprinklers are life savers.”
The law that passed in 1999 exempted existing residential buildings from installing sprinklers unless their owners were doing major building renovations.
By then, Trump had come around on the issue. He agreed to spend $3 million to install sprinklers in all 350 units of a new project, Trump World Tower, because many buyers wanted the protection, the Times reported in 1999.
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.