Four members of Elmont Truck 2 found themselves trapped at the bottom of a stairwell when the mattress from a bed in an illegal basement apartment re-ignited as they were carrying it up the narrow stairway. The volunteers were responding to a call for a carbon monoxide alarm at 185 Lincoln Street in Elmont on November 16th.
"The mattress became a fireball," said Elmont Fire Chief Edward Lutz, "and my men were trapped at the bottom as the fire raged and began burning the walls, a bookshelf and clothing." With egress blocked, Andrew Conrad, Captain of Truck, 2, Lt. Brian Schriefer, Truck 2, Fire Fighter Kevin Pholl, and the Department's Assistant Chief Rob Chernow, had no way to escape.
When Lutz arrived on the scene, a young man reported that when he arrived home the alarm was going off and he smelled smoke. Upon opening the door, Lutz realized there was a fire in the basement. The four firefighters found a mattress that had ignited from a cell phone charger in the illegal studio apartment, and extinguished the flames. In their attempt to remove the smoldering mattress from the premises, their exit became blocked when it re-ignited and wedged in the stairwell.
"Fortunately they were all wearing protective gear including self contained breathing apparatus, or they might have died in the fire," said a Department Chief who was both relieved and angry. The four retreated to another part of the basement while Engine 2 shot water down the stairwell extinguishing the intense fire.
"This was a very close call for our guys," declared Lutz. "Illegal housing is going to kill someone," exclaimed this angry Chief. "If not one of our firefighters, then an innocent tenant." He went on to say he was "furious with the Town." "They have to do something about these illegal basement apartments. They are a serious threat to responders and tenants alike."
We've already had one fatality, do we need more for the Town to act? About 12 years ago, a tenant in an illegal basement apartment on Doughty Avenue perished in a fire. The man who handed his baby out the window tragically was himself unable to escape through that small window five feet or so above the basement floor, and rescuers were unable to pull him out.
Within the Town of Hempstead, Elmont is known to have the most illegal multiple dwellings. Firefighters, and other first responders are now risking their lives in an attempt to enter these dwellings. Citing other incidents, Chief Lutz said, "We enter a burning house and there all walls where there shouldn't be walls, and we can't even get from one part of the house to another." He went on to say that exits are blocked and they have found numerous beds lined up in what should be a single family home. "Everyone living in these conditions is at risk."
Death of four firefighters was narrowly avoided Wednesday, November 16, because the Chief and firefighters followed procedures and were wearing the appropriate protective gear. Chief Lutz, when he realized there was smoke, called for backup and the Engine Company was at the scene.
We're glad you had the proper equipment and that you're still here Andrew, Brian, Kevin and Rob, to continue to respond to the emergency calls from Elmont Fire District residents. But, the Fire Department and tenants alike need to know the Town of Hempstead cares about their safety. The Town needs to address the issue of dangerous illegal basement apartments; and they need to do it NOW!
Reprinted with permission from the Elmont Herald, Roy J. Mezzapelle, Publisher.
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Illegal rental apartments in single family homes not only pose great risks to the health, safety and well-being of tenants, homeowners and firefighters, they also cause untold millions in loss to our property tax base. Your property taxes pay to pick up their garbage, provide water, police and fire service to illegally ocupied homes, and to educate children whose parents, as tenants in illegal apartments, pay no property taxes at all!
True, there is a critical shortage of affordable housing on Long Island, responsible, in part, for the proliferation of illegal accessory apartments. Another problem long-neglected by the Town of Hempstead, contributing to the taxpayers' ever-increasing burden. The critical needs of both the renter and the homeowner are not met, however, by the Town's construction of a mere 8 affordable housing units in Roosevelt (with another 11 planned for that community, and 3 more in Inwood), by continuing to blame the situation on the dreaded reassessment, or, as has become the custom at Town Hall, by ignoring the problem in its entirety, in the hope that it -- and we -- will simply go away.
Yes, Harvey Levinson may have lost the race for Town of Hempstead Supervisor, but his proposed 10-Point Plan to irradicate illegal rental apartments in single family homes should not be discarded with yesterday's Murraygrams. The Levinson Plan should be dusted off and revisited (or looked at for the first time by Town Hallers), tweaked as may be appropriate, and adopted/implemented by the Town of Hempstead.
Residents of Hempstead Town are encouraged to call Town Supervisor Kate Murray, and their respective Town Coucilmembers, at 516-489-5000, and tell them we need to slam the door shut on illegal accessory apartments.