Fire Crews Battling Clutter Along With The Flames


Another danger lurked as fire and smoke swept through the upper floors of a Brooklyn public-housing high-rise: junk.

The 19th-floor apartment where the blaze started last weekend was piled with it, fire officials said, creating a minefield that’s being looked at as a potential factor in the death of a New York City firefighter, the department’s first in the line of duty in more than two years.

Lt. Gordon Ambelas’s death July 5 came amid what some officials say is an uptick in fire calls complicated by clutter, conditions the FDNY code names “Collyer’s Mansion” after the infamous 1947 case of two brothers found dead amid the floor-to-ceiling clutter in their Harlem brownstone.

Up to 5 percent of the population has a hoarding disorder, the American Psychiatric Association estimates, and firefighters say it shows up when entryways and rooms are blocked by piles of stuff — knickknacks, electronics, clothes, boxes and garbage.

This week, a woman died in a blaze that tore through a New Jersey row house where firefighters had a hard time reaching her second-floor bedroom because of an extreme amount of clutter on the stairs. In Portland, Ore., in April, neighbors were unable to save an elderly man in his burning home because of “extreme clutter/hoarding conditions.”

Privacy laws and red tape prevent authorities from fully knowing or understanding the dangers of their buildings and neighborhoods. Fire departments can inspect commercial structures but are often powerless to check residences for hazards.

“We can’t just go in and tell someone to clean their apartment,” said New York Deputy Commissioner Frank Gribbon.

Instead, they have focused on training firefighters for the Collyer’s Mansion call, with its potential for more intense heat and faster spreading flames.

The FDNY recreates cluttered conditions at its fire academy and updates firefighters on the latest tactics. Dispatchers also note hoarding conditions they learn about through 911 calls or other sources, though Gribbon said that happens infrequently.

In the fire that killed Ambelas, the tenant, 51-year-old Angel Pagan, expressed sympathy to the family but denied that the apartment was cluttered to excess. However, neighbor Noreida Santiago said Pagan’s apartment was “full of stuff,” including multiple air conditioners and furnishings he got on the street.

“Anything he would find, he would bring into his house,” she said.