De Blasio visits site of massive Williamsburg blaze, as residents worry about health effects

NYC DOH: No immediate health risk

February 5, 2015 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Mayor Bill de Blasio toured the site of Saturday’s massive warehouse fire in Williamsburg on Thursday morning with FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro. Some residents are worried about long-term health effects. Photo courtesy of Demetrius Freeman - Mayoral Photography Office
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Mayor Bill de Blasio toured the site of Saturday’s massive warehouse fire in Williamsburg on Thursday morning for a briefing from FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro and Chief of Department James Leonard, and to thank firefighters for their work battling the fire.

Though sections of the CitiStorage facility on North 11th Street, which went up in a spectacular seven-alarm blaze, are still smoldering, the fire was declared under control by the FDNY on Thursday afternoon.

According to pool reporter Jennifer Fermino, dozens of firefighters were working at the icy waterfront scene, including units from as far away as Harlem and the East Village.

“I just want to express my appreciation and I know people all over the city feel the same way,” de Blasio told a group of roughly 20 firefighters who gathered around him. “I hope you guys know there’s a very deep kind of appreciation for the work you do. I don’t know if people always stop you enough to say thank you, but everyone of us feels it.”

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He said he felt blessed to have a firehouse one-block away from his home in Park Slope, because it gave him such a sense of security.

“I know this is truly, the few, the proud, the brave. This is not easy stuff, and I really admire the fortitude,” he said.

Commissioner Nigro told reporters that the cause of the fire hasn’t been determined, but it does not appear to be arson.

“The investigation is in the early stages and it’ll be ongoing for quite some time,” he said, adding that the cold weather made the investigation tough.

“Unless you’re a polar bear this kind of weather is difficult. The thing I don’t miss from my days in uniform was being simultaneously cold and wet. So, it is a difficult time for firefighters,” he said.

Health fears

Residents of the area have expressed concern about the lingering health effects of the fire – said to be the biggest in the city since 9/11 — and possible long-term environmental damage.

Activists say that people living downwind have complained about foul odors, sore throats, headaches, and the insides of their homes reeking of smoke. They have launched a petition on change.org, calling on the de Blasio administration to put into place a comprehensive environmental and public health plan. The petition had garnered roughly 370 signatures by noon on Thursday.

According to the advocacy group Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, it took the city’s Health Department more than 15 hours after the fire began to issue a public health advisory urging those in the North Brooklyn area to keep away from the smoke, stay inside and close their windows.

“Last weekend’s seven-alarm fire has raised serious health concerns for residents in North Brooklyn, and it is crucial that the city does everything in its power to address these concerns,” Councilmember Stephen Levin (D-Downtown/Williamsburg) said in a statement.

Assemblymember Joe Lentol (D-Greenpoint/Williamsburg) said, “Luckily, no one was harmed during the fire, but we need to make sure there are no environmental or health conditions to worry about, and I urge all relevant agencies to address this issue as soon as possible.”

DOH: No immediate risk

The NYC Department of Health (DOH), told the Brooklyn Eagle on Thursday that the fire posed no immediate health risk.

“We understand that people in and around Williamsburg are concerned about the air quality following the fire, but there is no immediate health risk to the residents,” a DOH spokesperson said. “As with any fire, air quality is expected to be affected, and people, especially seniors, children and those with respiratory conditions, should avoid smoke exposure.”

An advisory generally isn’t necessary during a fire “because most are extinguished quickly and the smoke does not linger for a long time,” according to DOH.

“In this case, although the fire was large, there was no air quality emergency or health emergency,” DOH said. “We decided to issue an advisory with precautionary advice when it became clear that the fire was unusually large and that the smoke would be extensive. We continue to advise that people in the area should do what they can to minimize their exposure to any lingering smoke, and we will work with our partner agencies to embed these precautionary safety messages into earlier communications.”

In general, air advisories are issued when air pollution levels rise above typical background levels, but higher levels of air pollutants that are transient and localized do not pose unusual risks. Levels of air pollutants picked up at one nearby New York State DEC air monitoring station showed a spike in particulates, but only for several hours on January 31.

Supplementing the existing network of air monitors that already exist in the city would provide little information that would inform timely actions or community notices, according to those knowledgeable about the issue.

The site of the fire is 1000 feet by 300 feet and includes three buildings with separate addresses, according to officials on the scene. One of the buildings, at 5 N. 11th St., housed records for the Health Department, ACS, and Health and Hospitals, some with sensitive information, and many of which were reportedly blown around the neighborhood by the winds and washed into the river.

— With pool reporting by Jennifer Fermino, City Hall Bureau Chief, New York Daily News

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