Red Hook

FDNY closes investigation into apparent arson at historic Bowne building

September 4, 2019 Lore Croghan
Firefighters are on the scene at the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse after a June 2018 blaze. Eagle file photo by Lore Croghan

The FDNY has stopped looking for the culprit who set fire last year to the 1880s-vintage S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse in Red Hook.

They closed their investigation of the two-alarm June 2018 blaze at 595 Smith St. without being able to identify possible suspects, a Bureau of Fire Investigation report obtained by City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca indicates.

The building has been at the center of a tug-of-war between developers, preservationists and politicians over the last few months. Demolition ultimately won out.

The deliberately set fire at the Chetrit Group-owned building short-circuited the possibility of its being landmarked. The city Landmarks Preservation Commission won’t landmark a building that’s the subject of an open investigation, preservationists told the Brooklyn Eagle.

There were no security cameras at the four-story brick-and-timber warehouse on the banks of the Gowanus Canal, says the Fire Incident Report, which was shared with the Eagle. Video footage from cameras at nearby properties didn’t turn up any leads for identifying suspects either, the report indicates.

This June 2018 photograph shows the FDNY battling a two-alarm fire at the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse in Red Hook. File photo courtesy of FDNY
This June 2018 photograph shows the FDNY battling a two-alarm fire at the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse in Red Hook. File photo courtesy of FDNY

The account of the blaze, written by fire marshals, classifies it as “incendiary.” FDNY spokesperson Jim Long told the Eagle earlier this year this means it was “deliberately set.”

It was an act of considerable audacity, given the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse’s location right across the street from Engine 279/Ladder 131’s firehouse.

The Fire Incident Report says two red plastic gas containers were found at the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse after the fire. One was on the fourth floor, where the blaze started. The other was on the sidewalk outside the building, beneath a sidewalk shed. The NYPD lab determined the container found on the fourth floor held a mixture of ethanol and gasoline.

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No useful fingerprints were found by the NYDP lab.

Testing by the city Office of Chief Medical Examiner found “an insufficient concentration” of DNA on the gas containers to determine the identity of whoever brought them to the property, the report says.

Investigators discovered that a “wooden tower of relatively recent construction” had been erected inside the fourth floor of the south portion of the Bowne warehouse. The fire began on a wooden platform — part of the tower — that was about 10 feet above the floor.

The fire spread to the roof’s wooden structural elements and also moved “via dropdown” to the flooring, the report says. This means flaming materials fell from the burning platform and caused the floor to catch fire.

This is what the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse looked like in June 2018 after a deliberately set fire damaged its roof and part of the fourth floor. Eagle file photo by Lore Croghan
This is what the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse looked like in June 2018 after a deliberately set fire damaged its roof and part of the fourth floor. Eagle file photo by Lore Croghan

During the fire, there were “water supply issues” with a hydrant, the report says. One of the firefighters “shut down the hydrant and found that there was a brick and screws” inside it that were “impeding the water supply.”

The water used to fight the fire washed debris out of the building, which included “numerous cans of spray paint and a hypodermic needle,” the report notes.

Because there was “prolific graffiti in the building with elaborate murals,” a fire marshal interviewed a police officer from the NYPD Vandals Task Force. The officer said the task force does not maintain an address-by-address database of graffiti-covered buildings.

Councilmember Menchaca, U.S. Rep Nydia Velazquez and community activists fought unsuccessfully to get the historic S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse landmarked in order to stop its demolition. It was the most visible 19th-century warehouse on the Gowanus Canal and was eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

The city Buildings Department gave the Chetrit Group a demolition permit for the site in February.

The agency halted the Bowne building’s demolition various times for safety violations and other infractions. But workers were busy at the site on Labor Day — and the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse has been almost completely torn down.

The S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse has now been almost completely demolished. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
The S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse has now been almost completely demolished. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

“The situation at this site is full of red flags” and is “enraging and heartbreaking,” Menchaca told the Eagle via email.

“First, the FDNY ruled last summer that a damaging fire was non-accidental,” Menchaca said. “Second, it has received dozens of Stop Work Orders, to the point that the Department of Buildings was willing to issue a criminal summons. Third, despite clear interest on the part of residents to landmark the site, the property owner is ramming through the demolition.”

The Fire Incident Report is a summary of interviews that fire marshals did with firefighters, FDNY officials, NYPD officers and detectives, a Buildings Department engineer and private citizens.

Before releasing the report to Menchaca, FDNY’s Bureau of Legal Affairs redacted it by blanking out the private citizens’ names and company affiliations.

An FDNY spokesperson confirmed that the information the Eagle gleaned from the Fire Incident Report is accurate.

An executive at the Chetrit Group did not respond to a request for comment.

Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.

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