14 firefighters hurt in Brooklyn blaze

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NEW YORK (AP) – A raging fire laid waste to a complex of seven old warehouses on Brooklyn’s waterfront on Tuesday, sending a huge plume of acrid smoke over Brooklyn that evoked memories of the World Trade Center attacks nearly five years ago.

Shortly after the walls of one five-story brick warehouse collapsed, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said the cause of the 10-alarm fire would be investigated as possible arson.

“We’re calling it suspicious in origin,” he said in a street news conference two blocks from the scene. “The buildings were fully involved with fire when the first units arrived. That plus the fact that it started early in the morning are indications of a suspicious fire.”

Eighty units and more than 400 firefighters joined the battle, which continued late Tuesday. They used several tower ladders on three street sides while five fireboats pumped water on the flames from the East River, a technique the department calls “surround and drown.”

More than 6 million gallons of water were poured on the blaze, Scoppetta said, and the fire was “holding but not under control” by noon, more than six hours after it erupted. The tenth alarm was posted at about 3:30 p.m.

Fourteen firefighters suffered minor injuries, but no civilians were hurt and there was no need to evacuate the area, authorities said. Scoppetta identified the warehouse owner as Joshua Guttman, but had no other information.

Guttman could not be reached by telephone on Tuesday.

A man who answered the phone at his Brooklyn real estate office said Guttman “probably was one of the owners” of the fire-ravaged property, but said he had left for the day. A telephone message left at his home in Lawrence, N.Y. was not immediately returned.

A story published in The Village Voice in 2004 said Guttman tried to have another empty Brooklyn building rezoned for luxury housing but withdrew the request after a community board recommended it be rejected. The building burned down a week later. Arson was suspected but no one was charged, the Voice reported.

John Mulligan, a department historian, said the fire was the biggest, exclusive of the World Trade Center, since a 19-alarm fire at Brooklyn’s St. George Hotel in 1995. He said the trade center disaster was so large that the department quit counting alarms.

The ruined warehouse complex is part of an historic waterfront area marked for redevelopment as high-rise housing. The fire consumed part of the former Greenpoint Terminal Market, which had been proposed for city landmark status, and a building that in the late 19th century was the world’s largest rope factory.

The site is on the waterfront in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, a mixture of 19th century and small shipping and manufacturing firms. The famed Civil War ironclad, USS Monitor, was built in a shipyard that adjoined the warehouse property. The nearest homes are at least a block away.

The flames were clearly visible from the east side of Manhattan, where rubberneckers slowed morning rush hour traffic on the FDR Drive past the United Nations buildings. The acrid smoke, smelling at times of wood, rose in a huge black cloud visible for miles.

The fire started just after 5:30 a.m. and blazed furiously for six hours. At midmorning, the partial collapse of the largest of the seven warehouses caused utility wires to tug on nearby poles, one of which vibrated as if about to split. The crashing brick walls left only the corners of the five-story building still standing. Flames also spread to a storage lot where at least one rental truck was destroyed.

Area residents, watching from behind yellow tape, said the warehouses were destined to be torn down, for a park or other development. Some parts of Brooklyn’s long-neglected waterfront have been targeted for new housing or other purposes.

“They’re going to save a lot of money on demolition,” said Yuda Geller, a real estate agent who lives in Greenpoint.

“A block away, you could feel the heat,” said Filip Mielnicki, 17, a neighbor watching the blaze with his friend, 18-year-old Wojciech Wasilewski.

The two, students at Manhattan’s High School for Environmental Studies, said they had often “hung out” in the warehouse that caved in. It contained a lot of old clothing and boxes of blank checks but was otherwise unused, Mielnicki said.

They, among others, remarked on the smoke cloud’s resemblance to the pillar that drifted across Brooklyn for two days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center’s twin towers.

Fire officials said the warehouse complex on West Street between Quay and Noble streets – measuring 200 feet by 800 feet – was officially unoccupied, though it was unclear whether squatters were living there. Bales of cloth burned in one of the warehouses, Scoppetta said.

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