by Michael R. Sisak and Rachelle Blidner
Another danger lurked as fire and smoke swept through the upper floors of a Brooklyn public-housing high-rise: junk.
The 19th-floor Williamsburg apartment where the blaze started July 5 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' death July 5 came amid what some officials say is a nationwide 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.
The American Psychiatric Association estimates up to 5 percent of the population has a hoarding disorder, and firefighters are increasingly finding entryways, hallways and rooms blocked because of piles of stuff — knickknacks, electronics, clothes, boxes, papers and garbage.
"We find it more common today because people have more possessions," said New York Assistant Chief Jim Hodgens, who heads the city's fire academy. "People have two, three TVs. People have more clothes today. I think as a society we have more stuff. ... It complicates the search."
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, Oregon, in April, neighbors were unable to save an elderly man in his burning home because he had too much junk blocking the doors. Fire officials said they were hampered by "extreme clutter/hoarding conditions."
In Manchester, New Hampshire, in February, firefighters said they had trouble getting through knee-deep clutter during a blaze that killed a 72-year-old in her home.
"The front porch was loaded with things. The rear porch was loaded with things every room in the house, the stairway," District Fire Chief Mark Pelletier told WMUR-TV. "Just picture that, trying to walk in that under normal conditions but with full gear on trying to stretch a hose line. It hampered us drastically."
Privacy laws and red tape prevent government 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. Among them: If a door is blocked, cut through an adjoining wall. And it is "extremely hazardous" to climb atop debris because it could inadvertently lead them out a window.
Other departments have implemented similar protocols.
The National Fire Protection Association offers a training session on hoarding and the firehouse.com has several training articles including "Hoarder Homes: Piles of Hazards for Firefighters."
New York fire officials declined to discuss the fire that killed Ambelas in detail citing an ongoing investigation, but did acknowledge the apartment was "heavily cluttered with debris and belongings."
The fire department did not say whether it was aware the apartment was cluttered before the fire started, apparently from a pinched air conditioner cord. The New York City Housing Authority, the owner of the 21-story Brooklyn building, would not answer the question either, citing the investigation.
The tenant, 51-year-old Angel Pagan, was not at home when the fire began. A telephone number for him was repeatedly busy. In interviews after the fire, he expressed sympathy to Ambelas' family. He denied that the apartment was cluttered to excess.
Communities from Maine to Arizona have created task forces to develop hoarding mitigation protocols. In some jurisdictions, the panels include mental and public health professionals.
"It's a very tough thing to beat," said Kristin Bergfeld, the founder of a company specializing in clearing hoarding cases. "As much as we can, we make sure somebody is in place to stay with the client and keep it going. That's as simple as having someone come in every week to take out the recycling and trash to make sure the person doesn't slide back and get in trouble."