By Gordon Williams
The American Red Cross of Greater New York is the nation’s biggest Red Cross chapter — embracing all of New York City, seven suburban counties and even a small slice of adjacent Connecticut. It is also the busiest chapter — responding to disasters that leave people homeless more than 4,000 times a year.
Fortunately most of these events are modest in scale — fires confined to a single dwelling or even a single room. This is an inside look at an event that was anything but modest–the December 28 fire at Bronx County, New York box 3303 that left 13 people dead and more in critical condition.
It was New York’s worst loss of life from a fire in 27 years. I saw it from the inside as a dispatcher in the chapter’s Emergency Communications Center (or ECC).
Few chapters respond often enough to require responders on duty 24/7 and few have need of dispatchers to direct responders to disaster scenes. But New York has teams of responders and dispatchers working eight hour shifts around the clock.
I spend part of the year in Bremerton, WA where I belong to the Northwest Region’s Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas chapter. The rest of the year I am in New York where I am Red Cross dispatcher 238.
The Red Cross had already finished one harrowing day when I reported for work at noon on the 28th. There had been two extra-alarm fires burning at the same time on the 27th — leaving the chapter caring for some 60 clients left homeless by those fires. By the time I settled in on the 28th, we had responded to four more fires.
Fighting fires in any weather is a challenge. But the temperature in New York on the 28th was in the teens. Firefighters kept finding hydrants frozen and unusable until they had been thawed.
Then came a string of five fires burning simultaneously–one in Manhattan, two in Brooklyn, one in Queens and that fire at 2363 Prospect Avenue in the Bronx. The Bronx incident seemed routine at first, reported as fire on the third floor of a five-story occupied apartment building.
The first sign it was not routine was the report of a 10-45 of a child. 10-45 is FDNY code for a medical situation. A 10-45 code four is a mild injury, treated at the scene. A 10-45 code one is a fatality. Then two more 10-45s were reported. We weren’t told how serious the injuries were — only that a growing number of people had been injured, including at least one child.
The first alarm came in at 6:59 p.m. and we sent a two-person response team to the scene. By 7:12 the fire had gone to a third alarm and we knew that people had been injured — some critically.
At 7:36 the fire went to a fourth alarm and at 7:57 we were told that at least three persons had died.
There were two dispatchers on duty–myself and Eleni Velez. Eleni is new to the Red Cross and only recently had been promoted to a salaried full-time dispatcher. From 7 p.m. until well past 9 there was never a time when one or the other of us weren’t on the phone. Eleni used a brand new notification system to alert supervisors and responders to the unfolding disaster. I briefed our chapter media people about the event and fielded phone calls from New York City Emergency Management; Fire Department Operations and the New York Police Department.
By 8:30 we knew the death toll stood at 12 — some of them children. We were told that some of the injured were fighting for their lives.
Bad as that was, there were still the other four fires in the city that we had to respond to. An off-duty responder who happened to be in the office, took one of the Brooklyn fires, The other Brooklyn fire, fortunately did not require a Red Cross response. The Queens fire had to wait until a new response crew came in at 10.p.m.
In the end we covered all the events that needed our help. Ultimately 15 Red Cross workers responded to the Bronx fire. NYC Emergency Management opened a reception center near the fire scene and Red Cross workers staffed that. The Red Cross assisted 30 adults and 10 children from the fire building. Most residents fled into sub-freezing temperatures wearing only indoor clothing or pajamas. The New York Times described a scene of residents huddled under Red Cross blankets while they awaited help.
Beyond that, the Red Cross posted mental health and health services teams at the chapter headquarters in Manhattan and at the offices of the New York City Medical Examiner where bodies of fire victims were taken, Interim Greater New York Chapter CEO Rosie Taravella notes that tragic as the Bronx fire was, it was only one of 61 disasters the Red Cross had responded to in just six days.
But the mission of the Red Cross is not only to respond to disasters but to prevent them. So Taravella could also report that a team from the Red Cross Home Fires campaign had traveled to the Bronx the morning after the fire to provide free smoke alarms and fire safety information to residents of the neighborhood.
I finished my shift feeling emotionally drained. We had just watched a tragedy unfold, minute by minute, from first alarm to word of that final death count. Yet if this was one tragedy the Red Cross could not prevent, we were there to help when help was needed the most.
Red Cross workers – staff and volunteers – worked in bitter, bitter cold to provide survivors with everything from warm blankets to emotional and spiritual comfort.
And while I worked from the warmth and security of “the bubble” – our nickname for the glass-walled windowless emergency communications center – I knew my fellow dispatchers and I had played an essential role in setting that Red Cross response in motion.
About the author:
Gordon Williams is a Red Cross volunteer who divides his time between New York City and Bremerton, WA. He is a seasoned radio dispatcher and prolific writer for our Northwest Region Communications Team.