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Thread: Worcester Ma -Warehouse land-taking vote today

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    Worcester Ma -Warehouse land-taking vote today

    Tuesday, November 30, 2004

    Warehouse land-taking vote today

    Site of inferno would house Worcester

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    Warehouse fire was abandoned building wake-up call

    Thursday, December 2, 2004

    Lessons learned

    Warehouse fire was abandoned building wake-up call

    5 YEARS LATER: WAREHOUSE FIRE

    By Shaun Sutner
    Telegram & Gazette Staff
    ssutner@telegram.com

    Editor's note
    Five years ago tomorrow, a fire in the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. on Franklin Street killed six city firefighters who had been trapped inside the building. Today the Telegram & Gazette begins a series of stories looking back on that tragedy, on the lives of people involved, on the city's actions to clean up dangerous buildings and on how the community remembers.



    WORCESTER

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    Warehouses Continued

    The Dec. 3, 1999, fire at the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. was the city's signal tragedy. Millions watched in sorrow as searchers recovered the bodies of Firefighters Paul A. Brotherton, Jeremiah M. Lucey and Joseph T. McGuirk, and Lts. Timothy P. Jackson, James F. "Jay" Lyons III and Thomas E. Spencer.

    Striking at the close of the 20th century, the infamous conflagration was epochal in many ways.

    Some problems - particularly dangers inherent in the plight of the homeless - appear just as intractable now as then. The deaths of two homeless people in an abandoned trailer in the city last year was tragic evidence that street people still find shelter in dangerous places.

    Key among the lessons fire and city officials learned from the 1999 fire is the need to seal buildings to keep out people who could get hurt or start fires.

    Last year, the Fire Department used $45,000 from a federal grant to board up some of the worst abandoned warehouses, including one brick monolith the length of three football fields along the railroad tracks on Grand Street, where dozens of homeless once sheltered in a tent city.


    The community's soul-searching after the Cold Storage blaze also sparked new laws, improvements in fire prevention and firefighter safety, more vigilant code enforcement, and better understanding by firefighters, property owners and the public of the perils of vacant buildings.

    With the added wakeup call of 9-11, the federal government has chipped in hundreds of millions of dollars for fire equipment, training and staff.

    "We have a better awareness now of our own safety," said Worcester Fire Chief Gerard A. Dio. "There's been an attitude change about individuals being more cautious and aware of their surroundings."

    In July, Gov. Mitt Romney finally signed into law a bill authored by state Rep. John J. Binienda, D-Worcester, that requires property owners to give floor plans of vacant buildings to local authorities. The law carries no fines, but is a step in the right direction, state fire officials say.

    In 2001, the Worcester City Council enacted a broader, more enforceable ordinance. It requires owners of vacant buildings to provide detailed floor plans, secure windows and doorways according to strict federal standards, remove dangerous materials and post no-trespassing signs, among other things. Violators can be fined $300 a day.

    The measure incorporated a new state fire code stipulating that the most dangerous buildings display a dramatic "X" or a "/" to warn firefighters and others of extreme hazards.

    Today, the Sutton Lane mill and all the structures on the problem building inventory are marked with what has become for Worcester property owners the modern equivalent of the Scarlet Letter.

    photo below
    Deputy Fire Chief Timothy J. Gray in front of 41 Sutton Lane. Among abandoned buildings, he said, "This is our worst building in the city."
    (T&G Staff / CHRISTINE PETERSON)

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    Warehouses Continued

    One building that bears a slash is 254 Franklin St., an old brick edifice owned by Framingham developer Ding On "Tony" Kwan, next to the Cold Storage Warehouse, also owned by Mr. Kwan. Fire officials say that although Mr. Kwan has remedied some safety problems, they remain worried about heavy equipment on the roof. In any event, the building is slated to be replaced soon by a new fire station.

    Meanwhile, fire officials have improved how they examine vacant buildings.

    Quick surveys, often only of exteriors, typified the old approach.

    For example, three days before the Cold Storage disaster, former fire Lt. James Stolberg inspected the Cold Storage building, according to a report produced during a civil suit against Mr. Kwan in 2002 by relatives of the dead firefighters.

    His inspection was cursory. Fire companies responding to the five-alarm incident had almost no idea of the building's layout, federal investigators later concluded.

    "We walked around the building on the outside," the lieutenant, now retired in Florida, wrote. "I explained to my men what the inside looked like. I have inspected this when it was in operation."

    Five years later, fire crews extensively catalog the contents of dangerous structures. Using digital cameras, they photograph features of the worst buildings during annual inspections of 700 buildings.

    Special software links the images to simplified floor plans showing staircases, rooms and dangerous spots such as pits, and noting utility hookups, sprinklers and hazards such as combustible fuel and heavy equipment.

    The owner's address and telephone, type of construction and level of security are on an accompanying evaluation form.

    District chiefs in the field have updated color printouts of the information. Rushing to a fire scene, they leaf through the reports in their command cars.

    At the stations, firefighters can review the same data on the city's new Intranet system.

    "We had forms before, but we didn't really define the structure," Deputy Chief Gray said. "We did `walk-around' inspections, but now we're more involved with the structure of the buildings."

    The booming real estate market has also helped rid the city of some eyesores as developers and nonprofits have converted sprawling hulks into condominiums, replaced acres of contaminated industrial land with supermarkets and new warehouses, and made tenements livable again by renovating derelict apartment buildings.

    It has taken him 10 years, but Worcester developer Frank Zitomersky has crews renovating an old hotel at 769-771 Main St. that, before it was boarded up in the late 1990s, was a magnet for the homeless.

    Now called the Jackson Apartments with 28 units, its well-equipped three-bedroom apartments will rent for $650 a month plus utilities - market rate in the Main South neighborhood.

    "The market has become much warmer," Mr. Zitomersky said, showing a visitor the new airtight windows, exposed beams and vintage brick fireplaces that helped convince some New York investors to sink $1 million into the project. "The market has done more for abandoned buildings than all of our bureaucratic effort."

    Some neighborhood activists praise the efforts of city code officials, saying that despite cuts in municipal budgets and staff, the officials have kept after landlords to secure their properties, fix or clean them up, or demolish them.

    Even the Worcester Regional Research Bureau, often critical of city government, recently commended city officials for their attentiveness to vacant and abandoned buildings.

    Since the Cold Storage fire, the city and private owners have torn down nearly 100 abandoned structures. During the same five years, 650 units of new housing have been created in once abandoned buildings. This approach has pleased housing activists who prefer renovation to demolition - which they say too often creates vacant lots that breed more trash and crime.

    Municipal officials say problems remain.

    A year ago, Code Enforcement Commissioner Jill C. Dagilis cut the abandoned building inspection program, saying she had unfilled inspection positions and pressure from the state to step up inspections of restaurants, nightclubs and college dorms.

    Even so, two inspectors respond to complaints about vacant buildings, and work with landlords to fix problems or order the buildings demolished. While eight jobs remain unfilled, the City Council recently approved funds to hire two more inspectors.

    "We'll keep monitoring the abandoned buildings. Whenever we get complaints, the inspectors are in the field right away," Ms. Dagilis said. "We're working as smart as we can with the resources we have."

    It's easy to find people who say it is significantly less likely that a catastrophe like the Dec. 3, 1999, fire could happen again.

    Other observers are not so optimistic.

    This city of about 172,000 still has a small army of homeless - 3,000 by some estimates.

    And despite small increases in affordable housing, a persistent shortage always threatens to force more poor residents into crowded shelters and onto the streets.

    Or into abandoned buildings where they could freeze or burn to death, or ignite a fire that could kill others.

    "Some things are getting better," said Peter A. Stefan, a Worcester funeral home owner who has buried many destitute people. "But why does there have to be a tragedy before things get done? This is not how an intelligent society operates."

    Contact Shaun Sutner via e-mail at ssutner@telegram.com.
    photo below
    Below, firefighters battle the Cold Storage blaze five years ago. (T&G File Photo)

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    Developer Kwan gains despite loss of building

    By Bob Kievra
    Telegram & Gazette Staff

    For Framingham developer Ding On

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    Propeties of Mr. Kwan near fire site.

    Map of area below.

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