Ok, so the title is a little dramatic, but it’s not too far off from reality. Were it not for our nocturnal exploring activities, a major fire could have destroyed a fuel storage facility and other vital infrastructure. First responders could have been seriously injured or worse.
Let’s cut to our original 2004 write up – which I’ve updated with actual street names. The Bing aerial screen grab image lets you follow the action as well.
“Aborted By Fire”
So Sleazy had this idea to go check out some building in a very industrialized part of Greenpoint, located at a dead end behind the sewage treatment plant. If a cop sees you walking towards such a dead end in the middle of the night they might become suspicious since there is just nothing down there at all. Clearly you’re up to no good.
Along this street we stop at a fence and notice that there’s something burning behind it. This of course is strange, but stranger still is the fact that there’s not one person in sight. It quickly becomes obvious that this fire is not under any sort of control.
Sleazy speeds on down to the dead end on his bike with ACF not far behind him. Just beyond the dead end there is a driveway into the sewage treatment plant with a guard in it. Sleazy tells him what is up, the guard says he’ll call it in, and we go back to take more photos. In retrospect I should have thought to flip my scanner on and listen for any chatter on the borough FDNY dispatch frequency.
Another minute or two passes and damn, those flames are starting to get pretty fucking high. The night is still very silent though. Shouldn’t we be hearing sirens by now? The nearest fire station is just a few blocks from here.
At this point it has been at least 4-5 minutes. The flames are now burning right through the side of the building – which is a really bad sign. An ‘exposure’ such as this one feeds oxygen to the fire. Within the next 10 minutes, what probably started as a minor electrical fire will consume the entire building and start spreading to neighboring structures – and that’s really, really not good in a neighborhood that local police officers call ‘the hazmat zone’.
The rent-a-cop probably thinks Sleazy was fucking with him. Either that or he doesn’t have a phone, or is simply going to go back to sleep and ignore the situation. He’s around a corner in a nook, and can’t see what we’re seeing. He didn’t come out of his booth though. Maybe he was having a good wank at some porn? Who knows really. (at least half what you hear in the media about increased security post 9-11 is bullshit, and if this isn’t proof of that I don’t know what is).
I run off back in the opposite direction (west on Kingsland) – there has to be someone else around here, and if not I’m running all the way to firehouse a few blocks from here. I didn’t have to go that far though. At the corner there are two fuel trucks idling. If there would be anyone worried about a fire around here, it would be the guys with their truck full of explosives. They are parked outside a decent sized fuel terminal that is one building away from the scene of the fire. If it isn’t put out in the next 15-20 minutes, this whole area is going to explode. Seriously fucking explode. With another fuel facility just over the creek, there’s potential for the worst kind of chain reaction.
I find a guy there working on one of the trucks and ask him if he’s got a phone (this was 2004 – none of us had cell phones yet) and that there’s a fire down the block. Just as I say there’s a fire, I turn and point – ‘look – it’s getting bigger – you an see it from here!’ Seeing is believing – he didn’t doubt me for a second. He ran back into the office yelling for the phone. Perhaps half a minute later the silence of the night was broken with the sirens in the distance. Not just one or two sirens, but several, so the dispatchers are taking it seriously. Finally.
Perhaps that other security guy finally saw the flames start to rise and called in as well. I kinda doubt it though. He looked like he was probably too busy beating off. Thank goodness this was an industrial building that was on fire, and not a house or apartment building with people sleeping in it. The time lost thinking that guy would take immediate action could have been disastrous (soon after this I finally went and got my first cell phone – never trust strangers to take action in emergencies, they usually do not).
I run back, yelling to ACF & Sleazy what’s probably obvious… that ‘they’re coming’. I then double back towards the main intersection where I can hear the fire trucks arriving at the corner of Greenpoint ave and Kingsland. Their sirens fade out, and one or two hop off the rig looking around and not seeing actual trouble yet. For a brief few seconds I thought ‘shit, if they don’t come down the street and around the corner they’ll never see it’. This worry fade fast though as they spot me running up the block pointing back down the street behind me. ‘Over here!’. The siren starts again and they start coming in my direction. Ladder 106, Engine 238. Immediately they’re breaking into the property and stretching a hose line. The night air is filled with the sound of more and more sirens, a dozen fire trucks from 2 boros pour in. The desolate dead end has become a beehive of activity.
The firemen do their usual thing, consisting tonight of quickly finding a way to break the lock on a rolling gate into the facility that was burning, bashing in doors, sticking ladders up to the roof to poke holes in it to vent the smoke out of the building. All pretty much by the book standard procedure. The fire is contained to the source building, and quick work prevents it from spreading.
The cops arrive with 2 cars. One sector car, and probably the Sargent though I didn’t look for stripes in the dark. 2 cop cars is a little, odd. Maybe the rent-a-cop is feeling stupid and covering his ass by pointing towards us? They start approaching and I quickly walk towards them. This could go any number of ways, so it’s best to approach with confidence and set it straight from the get go. I already have a plausible excuse why we’re in the area (location scouting for a video shoot – I actually did some location scout work at the time) and immediately start to kevetch about how the security guy was as useful as a sundial in a subway tunnel. I had this story already rehearsed in my head – not because I enjoy lying to people, but because it didn’t matter why we were down there in the larger context of things. We never got a chance to commit the hideous crime of hopping that fence and photographing an abandoned building that would soon be demolished.
The officers were very professional and realized we were the good guys and certainly didn’t start whatever caused this fire (which was my worry – these guys are paid to think the worst of people). They don’t even bother to tell us to stay out of the firemen’s way since we did that all along. I thought perhaps they’d have some questions (like ‘what the heck are you guys doing walking around down here?’), but I answered them all in my 10 second monologue. Answers up front, suspicion suppressed. This is what a good citizen is suppose to do: when you see something bad going down, report it, stick around to answer any questions if possible, and stay out of the way.
We got a few more photos and leave. We ended our evening at a different abandoned lot nearby, literally photographing some random wild bunnies we came across (how often do you see wild bunnies in the city?).
Perhaps we didn’t get to explore what we were after, but I think the other action photos were worth it.
I’m just left to wonder how far that fire would have spread if we did not come across it and persist in getting the situation addressed. It probably would have grown quite a bit before anyone noticed and could easily have resulted in an undue injury to an emergency responder. Chalk up one moral victory for vigilant explorers everywhere who do the right thing.
And that, of course, is the main point I want to stress here. How many other people would notice or even care to do the right thing in this type of situation? Clearly that rent-a-cop didn’t give a damn. While some people think explorers are either a menacing for trespassing wherever they can, or a threat to national security for going to places that average citizens are not permitted to go and often photographing them, the truth of the matter is obviously very different. Explorers are for the most part some of the most responsible, helpful and noble people I know. Explorers are in many ways a volunteer army, patrolling places that no one else cares to, and reporting anything truly wrong immediately. In summary, explorers are an asset to society, and anyone telling you otherwise is an ignorant fool.
Original text written in 2004. Amazing how they still ring true today. Re-posted March, 2013.<