When Lieutenant Walter Malone responded to a fire on the first floor of a building in Brooklyn, his orders were to check out the factory above. The fire was so intense, he and a partner had to crawl on the floor to see anything.
What they did find was 40 cans of gasoline attached by a wick.
“I’m crawling and waiting for the fire to come up here and this is all set up to go,” Malone said. “It’s going to blow soon.”
His next orders were to get away, which he did. But luckily, the firefighters below had knocked the fire fast enough that the heat didn’t rise in time to set off an explosion.
The city that has always prided itself on its buildings felt the pang of embarrassment when all of a sudden residents were burning them down. That was New York City in the 1970’s.
“Everything that was gone was because something had burned down,” Joe Flood, author of The Fires, a book about arson’s history in New York City, said.
Decades ago, arson was the answer to everything. It was the answer to rent increases by landlords, tax cuts by tenants and the swinging of votes for politicians. It made money, told stories and played a significant role in New York, especially in the Bronx. So much so that the French used to refer to arson as le Bronx.
“It’s how people lived,” Flood said. “People slept with their shoes on, kept their belongings in suitcases by the door. People were on constant alert for dying in a fire.”
The Bronx lost more than 97 percent of its buildings to fire and abandonment between 1970 and 1980, according to census data. In 1976, arson rates hit a record high with 13,752 recorded arsons. Mayor John Lindsay seemed to think arsons were getting so bad that he set up CANS, the Community and News Service, as a way to provide shelter, food, money and clothes for the people affected by these fires.
“Unfortunately people would have their furniture outside the building and set it on fire so when we were pulling hose they would say we have 16 adults and 32 children in the building,” Malone said. “Fires skyrocketed because they bent over backwards.”
Arson has happened long before the 1970’s. The first recorded arson was the Great Fire of New York in 1776, which is believed to have been started by a number of people and led to the burning of 10 to 25 percent of the city. In 1858, the New York Marine Hospital in Staten Island, known as the Quarantine, was set on fire because islanders resented the immigrants going there with infectious diseases. In 1974, Gulliver’s Nightclub Fire went down, killing 24 patrons and injuring 19 patrons and 13 firemen, because of an arson in the next-door bowling alley.
But one of the worst arson cases remembered in New York City was the Happy Land Fire on March 25, 1990 at a club in the Bronx. The fire killed 87 people and Julio Gonzalez, an ex-boyfriend of a club employee, was convicted of arson and murder thereafter. To this day, people affected by the arson come together on its anniversary to remember the lives lost.
“I just remember my mom always coming because I’ve been coming since I was one,” Michael Nunez, who was born the year after the fire, said. “She’s the one that decorates the whole place. Every year for every occasion we come over here and we fix up the place so that it won’t look trashy or anything, so they can be remembered the way that they should be.”
After the horrifying rates of arson in the 1970’s, New York State got involved. Under the Office of Fire Prevention and Control Arson Bureau, in the mid-1980’s, the funding for equipment and programs to monitor and control arson from a local standpoint. These programs were succeeding for years until budget cuts slowed progress down.
Even though the implementation of these programs have slowed down or ceased to exist, the scars of one of the city’s darkest times has led to a transformation in the fire department and a decrease in New York City fires.
“Things were very bad in 1970’s,” Lieutenant James Maroney, who volunteers along with Malone at the New York City Fire Museum, said. “They burnt buildings, they built buildings up.”
Arson numbers have decreased dramatically since the days of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and that’s because of the fire conscious nature of the city’s residents.
“The arson problem is reduced because people are moving back to New York City,” Vincent Dunn, a former field commander, said. “Crime has been reduced, the economy is good, garbage is being picked up, drug use is down, and there are very few vacant buildings.”
And firefighters now have a much greater advantage. Not only were the newer buildings put in place with specific fire codes to abide by, but the firefighters are much more prepared with the proper gear, too.
“In those days it was different,” Malone said. “Life was different, things were different.”
Timeline by Alessandra Malito & Ross Keith Graphic by Ross Keith