On January 5th, a fire in a Manhattan high-rise apartment building resulted in the death of building resident Daniel McClung, who was found in a smoke-filled stairwell.  Several other residents were injured, including Mr. McClung’s husband who was also found in the stairwell.  The fire appears to have been the result of an overloaded extension cord or power strip.  The apartment’s resident was not at home when the fire started, and reportedly opened his door upon returning home, saw the fire and escaped leaving the door open.  This provided oxygen to the fire, and allowed the smoke and flames to spread.

An FDNY spokesman stated that the victims tried to exit using the “attack stairwell” – the stair used by firefighters.  Because the door is typically propped open to avoid pinching the fire hoses, smoke can enter the stair at which point the exit enclosure may no longer be a safe egress route for building occupants.  Fail safe locks (or no locks) on stair doors will allow those in the stairwell to leave the stair to find another exit or shelter in place in a safe location.

A few questions come to mind…

  • If the fire was evident when the apartment’s occupant opened the door, why hadn’t the fire alarm been initiated?  Is it typical for apartment buildings of this age to not have a building-wide fire alarm system?
  • Why didn’t the apartment entry door close automatically when the resident fled, and will the property manager have the other entry doors inspected to ensure that they are code-compliant?
  • Were the residents who were found in the stairwell trapped there by locked stair doors, or were they just overcome before they were able to leave the stair to find another exit?
  • Is there a feasible way to confirm that the “attack stairwell” is clear of people before propping open the door and turning the stairwell into a chimney?

FDNY: Cause Of Fatal Manhattan High-Rise Fire Was Electrical – CBS 2 News
(at the 1-minute mark of this video, the unit door is discussed)

NYC fire officials: Wire likely caused fatal fire – Wall Street Journal

“If you are on a floor above a fire, you stay put,” Esposito said, adding that anyone in an apartment that’s on fire should get out and close the door behind them so the smoke and flames are less likely to spread.

Seven other residents and some firefighters suffered minor injuries.

Esposito said that fire investigators believe the cause of the blaze was an extension cord with multiple outlets being used in a 20th-floor apartment. He said flames spread to the floor above after the apartment door failed to automatically close, a safety measure he said is standard in modern buildings.

“And when firefighters arrived on the floor, we had a very smoky floor, we had a considerable heat condition on that floor,” he said. “The fire received all the necessary oxygen it needed and it developed into a free-burning fire; it broke the windows on the exterior of the building.”

Man who died in Manhattan high-rise fire should have stayed in apartment: FDNY – New York Daily News

Daniel McClung died trying to escape a Hell’s Kitchen high-rise blaze Sunday because he chose to flee down a stairwell that firefighters were using to run a hose to the flames — leading it to become inundated by smoke, fire officials said.

“That’s what we call the attack stairwell,” FDNY spokesman James Long said of the stairs chosen by the 27-year-old playwright and his husband, Michael Cohen, 32, who suffered critical injuries from smoke inhalation.

Firefighters used that stairwell for hoses because it was closer to the burning 20th-floor unit than a second stairwell. Because doors were opened for firefighters to access the stairwell, the attack stairwell filled with smoke that overcame the couple. McClung and his husband entered the stairwell on the 38th floor, but didn’t make it past the 31st floor.

Smoke poured into the attack stairwell when firefighters opened the door so they could get water from the standpipe, which is in the stairwell, to the fire. The door would have been propped open to ensure the hose wasn’t pinched, allowing for more oxygen to pass through and feed the flames, Long said.

“They’re probably in there before we even get to the attack stairwell and then we pop open the hallway door and ‘Boom!’ the smoke is coming up at them with a greater level of heat,” he said.

In Wake of Fatal High-Rise Fire, FD Says Evacuating Not Always Safest Plan – DNAinfo NY

“They would have survived, absolutely, if they had stayed in their apartment,” he said.

Esposito said the blaze was sparked by a power cord in an apartment on the 20th floor. The tenant got home, opened the door, and saw smoke flooding from his apartment. He ran, leaving the apartment door open to send smoke pouring into the hallway and the staircase, and send fresh oxygen into the apartment to fuel the flames, fire officials said.

Esposito said the FDNY is investigating why the building did not have legally-required fire safety doors that are supposed to close on their own, Esposito said.

“The door did not self close. When firefighters arrived on the floor, we had a very smoky floor and we had a considerable heat condition on that floor,” he said.

The FDNY has posted high-rise fire safety information on their website, including the instructions to close the door behind you if the fire is in your apartment.  More proactive information about checking apartment entry doors and stairwell doors to make sure they’re “fireproof” and self-closing is included in the FDNY’s Residential Apartment Building Fire Safety guidelines.

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