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7 Die as Fire Races Up Skyscraper Trash Chute

March 23, 1987|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Three people jumped to their deaths and four others were killed early Sunday, when flames turned a 35-story Manhattan apartment tower's refuse chute into a giant chimney. Twenty-five others were injured in the blaze, which briefly trapped rescuers who had braved choking black smoke to rouse residents by blowing whistles and pounding on doors.

Robbin, 18, and Stanley Jenkins, 23, and their sister, Dwana, who had celebrated her 12th birthday Saturday, jumped from the terrace of their 33rd floor apartment with their clothing burning.

"Their bodies were sufficiently burned to the point where it would cause people to opt to jump," Fire Commissioner Joseph Spinnato said. "They were suffering."

Mother Among Victims

The body of Martha Jenkins, 43, mother of the three who jumped, was found in the apartment, while three other people were found dead in the apartment above. They were identified as Clementine Grensham, 46, Charles Grensham, 28, and Harriet Wynn, 45.

One of the 25 people who were treated for smoke inhalation was reported in critical condition at a nearby hospital, officials said.

The first alarm was sounded at 7:57 a.m., but firefighters initially thought the blaze was confined to a trash compactor in the basement and did not realize flames were beginning to billow from windows on upper stories in the rear of the building.

Spinnato said it was not until 20 minutes later that the firefighters discovered the flames on the top floors and summoned help. Fire Department spokesman Frank Martinez said it was later determined that the fire had started farther up the chute, and burning trash had fallen into the basement compactor.

The fire was under control at 9:45 a.m., and most of the damage was confined to the 33rd and 34th floors and to an unoccupied apartment on the 23rd floor.

No Fire Escapes

The 24-year-old building, one in a cluster called Schomburg Plaza constructed by the government-financed Urban Development Corp. at the northeast corner of Central Park, had no fire escapes but was designed to be fireproof, officials said.

Most of the residents were people of moderate income paying monthly rents of $600 to $700 for three-bedroom apartments.

Fearful that many policemen and firemen would be stranded in the concrete tower, the police department's two largest rescue helicopters were flown to a landing site in the park. But after 90 minutes, the smoke abated enough for people to scramble down stairways to safety.

"Ever put your hand in the frying pan? That's how hot it was," said Tom McCarthy, one of the first firemen to enter the building.

Climb 35 Floors

"There was a lot of smoke and a lot of scared people," said Housing Authority policeman Brian La Russa, also one of the first to arrive. "We walked up to the 35th floor."

La Russa and many of his companions were forced to climb stairs to the light brown concrete tower's top after its elevators failed.

Among those who walked down the long flights of stairs to safety was 81-year-old Selina Jacobs. Still wearing a maroon bathrobe and red slippers, she and many of the other survivors gathered in a church just across Fifth Avenue. "I walked down. My knees are just shaking, especially when you are 81 years old," she said.

Other residents of the building at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue stuffed wet towels under their doors in often futile efforts to block the smoke then waited on terraces high above the street until they could be saved. Still others fled to the roof.

Puts Child on Next Terrace

"Thank God for the smoke alarm that woke us up," said Bob Melloan, a former policeman. "Thank God for the terrace. . . . I put my grandchild over the terrace to the next apartment."

In the smoke inside, rescuers anxiously groped from door to door, from floor to floor. "We lost where we were between floors," said Housing Authority policeman Michael Weiner. "We gave people directions. We did lead them down the stairs. We blew whistles. We pounded on doors. We told them to get down the stairs. The center apartments, some of the doors were so hot we could not knock on them. . . . The people were panicking. A lot of children were panicking."

Mayor Edward I. Koch chatted with half a dozen of the victims in a large ambulance.

"We are all very distressed," the mayor said. "These people are very upset. We don't know if the chute was adequately maintained."

Suspect Sprinkler Failure

After the two-alarm fire was extinguished, investigators said it appeared the blaze broke out in the garbage chute at about the 23rd floor and soon flared upwards, incinerating the apartments closest to the shaft. A smoldering cigarette may have ignited trash that had become wedged in the two-foot-square chute, Martinez said.

Fire officials said it appeared a sprinkler system installed in the shaft had failed. When the sprinklers didn't go off, the draft just sucked up the flames and spread smoke throughout the building.

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