After fatal fire, watchdog finds safety neglect in NYC public housing

October 4, 2016 12:01 PM EDT

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By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York City maintenance worker falsely reported that the smoke alarms inside a Bronx public housing apartment were working just hours before a fire erupted inside, killing two young children, according to a report released on Tuesday.

The city's Department of Investigation (DOI) also found that maintenance workers at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) routinely failed to perform required safety checks during home visits and regularly falsified work orders indicating they had done so.

"DOI has now found that NYCHA workers blatantly flouted basic precautions, supervisors failed to check on them, and tragedy was the result," said Mark Peters, the commissioner of the DOI.

In a statement, Jean Weinberg, the chief communication officer at NYCHA, said, "Safety is our top priority - it is simply unacceptable to put NYCHA residents at risk because of neglect or indifference. In addition to disciplinary actions taken against staff identified in the report, the Authority issued enhanced safety inspection protocols and training, and launched an internal audit and employee public awareness campaign back in June."

The April 13 fire, at the Butler Houses, killed two girls, aged 2 and 1-1/2. The blaze began when the girls' mother, mistakenly believing a roommate was home, went out to buy ice cream and finish her laundry, according to media reports.

Fire officials said two smoke alarms inside the apartment were not working.

A NYCHA maintenance worker who visited the apartment earlier that day, Rene Rivera, filled out a report saying the alarms were "satisfactory," according to DOI.

Efforts to reach Rivera were unsuccessful. He retired from NYCHA once disciplinary charges were brought, according to a department spokeswoman.

A spokeswoman for the Bronx district attorney's office said there was not enough evidence to support criminal charges against Rivera.

The fire prompted DOI to initiate a broader review of NYCHA safety checks.

The department conducted inspections of 240 apartments that had been recently visited by maintenance workers and found more than half had deficiencies in one or more of the six safety conditions, including smoke alarms, that NYCHA workers must check upon each visit.

The report also said 104 of the original work orders for those apartments were missing, in violation of NYCHA policy. Nearly one-third of the work orders for the remaining 136 apartments inaccurately showed that smoke or carbon monoxide detectors were working when they were not.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Alistair Bell)

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