Bill Morris in Building Operations on December 16, 2016
The Strand, built in 1989, is a 43-story brick tower that shoots into the sky at the corner of Tenth Avenue and West 43rd Street in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan. The 300-unit condo’s proximity to the Times Square theater district has made it a magnet for actors, playwrights, and other creative types. Because of its materials and construction, the building is officially classified as “fireproof,” with apartments designed to contain fire for up to three hours – ample time, theoretically, for firefighters to arrive and extinguish any blaze.
But Sunday, January 5, 2014, was a day that had no use for theories. A resident of the Strand’s 20th floor returned from shopping that chilly winter morning to find his apartment on fire. The resident fled without closing the door, allowing oxygen to feed the blaze, which the fire marshal would declare electrical in origin. With smoke and panic spreading throughout the building, many neighbors headed for one of the two stairwells – even though emergency procedures advised residents to remain inside their apartments during a fire.
Eighteen floors above the blaze, Daniel McClung, a 27-year-old playwright, and his husband Michael Cohen scooped up their dogs, Schooner and Georgia, and raced for a stairwell. On the way down the stairs they were overcome by the acrid smoke gushing up. McClung and both dogs died. Cohen wound up in intensive care. It took firefighters nearly two hours to extinguish the flames.
Nearly three years after the fatal fire, it’s apparent the “what-ifs” of that day are still with Bill Ragals, a retired attorney who has been president of the Strand’s board since 2004. “This building is fireproof,” Ragals says. “If the door to the apartment on the 20th floor had remained closed, end of the story.”
It took two years to sort out all the insurance claims. Meanwhile, all eight apartments on the 20th floor had to be restored, and extensive water damage on the lower floors had to be repaired, as did smoke damage on floors 20 through 43. Scorched portions of the building’s exterior had to be cleaned, repaired, or replaced. Thanks to adequate insurance, the board did not have to levy an assessment or raise common charges.
“Our management company, FirstService Residential, and our staff worked like the devil to bring this place back – for however long it took,” Ragals says.
The board expanded the health club and upgraded it with state-of-the-art equipment. The board had also signed a contract to install a cogeneration (combined heat and power) system before the fire. “It’s now installed and running,” Ragals says. “There are significant benefits. It runs 24/7, and is available as a backup in the event of a blackout, so we’ll always have light in the common areas, flushing toilets, one functioning elevator, and pumps to get water to our roof tank. The system will pay for itself in four or five years with the help of a grant from NYSERDA [the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority].”
Looking back, Ragals is both surprised by how quickly the building recovered from calamity, and aware that no individual could have done it alone. “We restored order in short order,” he says, “and the key was our staff and our contractors. People worked overtime to make sure everything was working.” He offers special kudos to property manager Jennifer Granda, resident manager Luis Ruiz and his staff, the contractor Proline Finishing, and the engineer Gene Ferrara of JMA Consultants. “Thanks to them,” Ragals says, “we’re back to being the premier building we were before the fire.”
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