Tenant Says His Building Complaints Preceded Raging Murray St. Fire

24 Murray Street on the morning after the fire. Since then, the windows have been sealed and a sidewalk bridge erected, by order of the Department of Buildings. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Sep. 04, 2017

A longtime commercial tenant of 24 Murray Street, the five-story Tribeca building that on Friday evening, Sept. 1, became engulfed in flames and heavy smoke, told the Trib that he had complained “for a while” to the building’s management about what he described as dirty ductwork in the building that needed to be cleaned and they were never cleaned. The Fire Department confirmed on Wednesday that the fire was accidental and started in the exhaust duct of the ground-floor Vietnamese restaurant, Pho King, 111 Church St. The ductwork leads to the buildings roof, which went up in flames.

Joe Castellana, 67, owner of Contamar Shipping, said the ductwork had been the source of smells and leaks in the building, whose Brooklyn-based management company, George Butsikaris Realty, he said, failed to try to remedy the problem.

“It was leaking onto the tiles on the second floor where you could see it,” said Castellana, who has worked in the building for 46 years. “So the super, instead of getting [the restaurant owner] to change it or fix it would just change the tile.”

“I’m furious over this,” added Castellana, who stood on Murray Street the morning after the fire, waiting with other tenants for permission to return to their offices and access the damage.

At the building on Tuesday, George Butsikaris would not answer a Trib reporters questions and did not return a call left for him at his office.

Other tenants interviewed said they did not have specific concerns about the building’s safety, though Jane Kim, an architect who worked on the second floor, noted the 166-year-old building’s age. “There are no sprinklers in the whole building,” she said, “so I know that doesn’t help.”

The building houses small stores on the ground floor and commercial tenants above and runs the length of the Church Street block between Murray Street and Park Place.

Pho King opened in the building last September. (The citys Health Department had closed the restaurant on Aug. 18 and allowed it to reopen 10 days later, according to city records.) The fire, Chief Roger Sakowich had told ABC7 on Saturday, Sept. 2, started on the first floor we believe in the ductwork in the restaurant. The ductwork ran up through the middle of the building. As the fire continued up it broke out on each floor. Oil in a restaurant’s exhaust can accumulate in the metal ductwork.

Video courtesy of Barbara Borozan

Reached by phone on Tuesday, Anh Nguyen, co-owner of Pho King, said she did not want to talk about the fire. “I don’t have any opinion or comment,” she said. “There’s fire. The Fire Department came to inspect, made reports. If you want more information, you should contact the Fire Department directly.”

During a multi-agency raid in January on Remix, a now shuttered basement-level club in the building, Department of Buildings inspectors cited the building owners, 27 Park Place LLC, with failure to provide adequate fireproofing and fire exits among other infractions. The club closed after the State Liquor Authority revoked its liquor license in February, but eight violations on the building and more than $12,000 in fines remain active, according to the DOB website.

The tenants say the buildings owner lives in Greece and rarely visits. They did not know his name.

The building, now under a total vacate order, is stable, according to a DOB spokesman. Before the total vacate order can be lifted, the owner must repair the damage caused by the fire and pass a Buildings Department inspection, though part of the building can reopen if it is deemed safe, the spokesman said.

The fire broke out around 6:45 p.m. on Sept. 1 and quickly climbed to the roof. Twenty-three firefighters were taken to Bellevue Hospital for treatment of minor injuries, according to the Fire Department. No civilians were injured in the six-alarm blaze, which took some 200 firefighters more than three hours to control.

Chris Kunz was getting ready to leave work from his apparel design company, Nicholas K, on the second floor, when he walked down the hallway and the air “seemed a little hazy.” But as he got to the third floor to go to the restroom “it was a lot more smoky and I could hear some crackling. It seemed like it was in the wall. And at that point, I knew something is really wrong.” By the time he had run back to his office to grab some things and make his way out, firefighters were climbing to the second floor. Kunz said he did not hear an alarm.