On January 11, 1988 at 8:19 p.m., the New York City Fire Department was notified of a building fire at East 50th Street, Manhattan. Arriving fire fighters found a fire involving several first floor rooms with trapped occupants on the floors above. Before the fire was under control, the fire department had sounded five alarms bringing over 200 fire fighters to the scene; four civilians died, 13 fire fighters were injured, and another nine civilians were also injured. Approximately 70 people were rescued by fire fighters.
The mixed-use building was a fire-resistive, 115 ft x 100 ft, 10-story high-rise structure. The first two floors had commercial areas, and floors three through ten contained apartments. A single-station, battery-operated smoke detector was provided in each apartment. Other fire protection equipment included a standpipe system in one of two enclosed stairways, fire extinguishers, and a partial wet-pipe automatic sprinkler system protecting a storage room in the basement.
The fire originated in a first floor office and, before the fire department arrived, spread to other areas on that floor. Combustion products spread to floors above because the first floor access doors for the two enclosed stairways were held open with wedges.
Coordinated suppression and rescue operations restricted the number of fatalities and injuries and limited the extent of damage to the building.
The following factors appear to have contributed significantly to the severity of this fire and to the loss of life:
• Building modifications that increased the fuel load;
• The absence of automatic detection or suppression systems;
• Stairway doors at the level of fire origin that had been blocked open,
allowing heat and smoke to spread throughout the building.
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