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First Steps When Disaster Strikes

Frank Lovece in Building Operations on December 12, 2017

Greenwich Village, Manhattan

Disaster Aftermath

Michael Coopersmith outside his Greenwich Village co-op after the fire went out (photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio)

Dec. 12, 2017

Co-op board president Michael Coopersmith was at work in midtown Manhattan on that afternoon last summer when he got the phone call we all dread: his Greenwich Village building, the Hamilton, was ablaze. 

“The first thing I heard was that my children were evacuating,” recalls Coopersmith, who immediately raced home. “I got out of the subway at Astor Place and picked up that smell I hadn’t smelled since 9/11 – it was our building burning.” 

A block from the subway stop, acrid smoke filled the street like dense fog, obscuring the shattered window glass that crunched beneath Coopersmith’s feet. A ladder leaned against his red-brick, six-story building at the corner of Broadway and East 9th Street, as the bucket of a cherry-picker hovered overhead.

Two hundred firefighters had responded to the five-alarm call, and as Coopersmith made his way through them, he remembers his anxiety level rocketing from “a 2 or a 3 to well over 100.” Reaching the nearest police line, he says, “I told them I was the board president and my children were there, and talked my way through. At that point, it was total, absolute chaos.” 

After Coopersmith determined that his family was safe, the questions started hitting him. What do I do now? Indeed, what does any co-op or condo board member do in a crisis such as this? What’s normal to expect? What should other people, such as the building professionals, be doing? For Coopersmith, whose building already had weathered Superstorm Sandy, some of the steps were familiar. Others, he says, were in “uncharted territories.” He knew the first step, though: keep the residents calm. 

As building staff and neighbors from surrounding buildings brought chairs for elderly evacuees, Coopersmith learned that the cavalry was on the way. Building manager Adrienne Alicea from RoseTerra Management and her assistant, Lia Chang, had been alerted by resident manager Barry Keogan. Alicea and Chang, rushing by cab to the scene, contacted Ed Donnelly, the company’s vice president of project management, as well as the building’s insurance carrier, Travelers

Donnelly, who was at his home on Long Island, headed into the city. “En route, we were in communication with disaster-response teams like Maxons [Restorations] and some contractors that we knew would drop everything and come to the site,” Donnelly says. “I reached out to an electrical engineer and a structural engineer.” New York City Emergency Management, which responds to local disasters, had notified the Red Cross

The fire was under control by the time Donnelly arrived on the scene. The blaze had started in the deli on the ground floor and shot up a shaft to the roof. 

Coopersmith eventually stood on tree guard and got the milling residents’ attention, trying to keep them calm. “People are upset, you have to understand they’re upset,” he says. Among other things, they’re worried about pets that were alone in the apartments when the fire started. “You say, ‘We hear you. We need you to move over so the fire department can do what they have to do, and they’re going to get your pet.’” Coopersmith also told residents they needed to find a place to stay that night, which the Red Cross and Emergency Management could facilitate. 

Once the flames were extinguished, Donnelly, along with engineers and city inspectors, began examining the building. Their job was to determine how quickly essential services could be back up, and to mitigate immediate damages from fire, smoke, and odor. Once the building’s structural integrity was established, firefighters escorted in residents who needed to retrieve personal items. 

RoseTerra hired a security company to post guards at the entrances and engaged a lesser-known entity called a fire watch. These trained and certified individuals walk through fire-damaged buildings, reporting if smoke detectors go off or new fires ignite.

The fire was out, but the challenges were just beginning for Coopersmith and his fellow board members.

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