After deadly Bronx fire, will NYC’s self-closing door law be better enforced?

Individual apartment unit doors are not a regular part of inspection protocol, officials said after an open door fueled the fire that left 17 dead in a Bronx high-rise blaze.

Mayor Eric Adams visits the site of Sunday’s fire in The Bronx. Monday, January 10, 2022.

Mayor Eric Adams visits the site of Sunday’s fire in The Bronx. Monday, January 10, 2022. Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

After a fire killed 13 people at a Bronx high-rise in December 2017, the City Council passed a law requiring self-closing doors in all buildings with more than three apartments in hopes of preventing another tragedy. 

On Sunday morning, less than six months after the law took effect on July 31, yet another fatal blaze poured out of an open door to a Bronx apartment unit and tore through the building, killing 17 in what was the deadliest fire in New York City in more than 30 years.

Had the door been closed, officials say the death toll at Twin Parks would have likely been much lower. And while New York City Fire Department marshals are still investigating why the door was left open, authorities have said that the self-closing mechanism appeared not to be working. A 15th floor door leading from the stairwell to the hallway also remained open as the fire broke out.

“If you’re in an apartment building that has self-closing doors, make sure it works, and if it doesn’t, please point that out to the landlord, to the maintenance folks and make sure your door closes as it should,” FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said at a Monday press conference in the Bronx. “The door was not obstructed. The door, when it was fully open, stayed fully open because it malfunctioned.”

Similar to smoke detectors or stove-knob covers, the city does not routinely inspect self-closing doors to individual apartments, meaning that landlords and tenants are often the only defense mechanisms against this fire-spreading hazard, officials said. 

“If no one’s enforcing on a somewhat regular basis or if tenants aren’t reporting a problem, or if tenants themselves are the ones manipulating it to make it just easier for them to leave the door open . . . those are some of the variables we can’t account for in government,” Councilmember Joe Borelli, who sponsored the 2018 bill that made self-closing doors a city law, told City & State.

“It’s not something that is required to be inspected regularly like an HVAC unit  . . . there’s not much of a way to comply with this rule unless tenants file a complaint or if (the Department of Housing Preservation and Development) or (Department of Buildings) is there on another call,” he said.

Prior to the law that took effect in 2018, self-closing doors were required in multiple dwelling units under state code. When the city law was passed, the violation penalty increased from Class B to Class C, meaning HPD can take immediate action to fix the hazard if the landlord does not comply. 

HPD issued more than 22,000 self-closing door tickets in fiscal year 2021, which cost landlords up to $150 per infraction, plus $125 per violation per day, the agency said. More than 18,000 of those violations have been remedied, HPD said. It’s unclear how many of the violations were for individual apartment doors or doors in public spaces or at the entrances to buildings. 

At Twin Parks, two violations for self-closing doors were issued in 2017 and one was issued in 2019, the agency said.

Inspectors check building entrance doors, as well as doors in public areas when they visit buildings as part of their “line of sight protocol,” HPD said. Individual apartment doors, however, are typically only checked when inspectors are visiting the apartment for another reason, or if they’re alerted to a violation, HPD said.

Borelli expressed some hesitation about the resources that would be needed to inspect every door in the city. 

“There’s no permitting process for door closers, there is no paperwork for this,” Borelli said. “We don’t send the fire department into people’s personal dwellings to make sure they have a working smoke alarm. We tell the tenants: make sure you have a working smoke alarm. Your landlord has to provide you with one . . . but they’re not busting down the door to inspect.”

Mayor Eric Adams on Monday said the city would push public service announcements about the importance of closing doors.

“If we take one message from this that Commissioner Nigro has mentioned several times: ‘close the door, close the door.’ That was embedded in my head as a child watching commercials over and over again,” Adams said Monday at a press conference in the Bronx, adding that the outreach campaign will be implemented, in part, through schools. “We are going to double down on that message.”

Councilmember Oswald Feliz, who represents the Bronx neighborhood where the fire happened, also vowed to take legislative action to prevent another tragedy.

“I’ll be working with my colleagues including our Congressman at the federal level, our borough president, our mayor and our state elected leaders to make sure we get additional fire-related laws to protect New Yorkers, because we have had far too many fires and this can not continue to be the future of our borough,” he said at the Monday press conference.