I had been catching up with a friend on a video conference call when an eerie orange glow out of my dining room window caught my eye and I heard what I believed to be exploding fireworks.
I told my friend, “Hang on a second. Something is going on outside.”
When I reached my back stoop, the flames were already high above the trees and rooftops.
The roar of the flames was punctuated with explosions, not from fireworks, but from the windows of the house on 46 East Second Street shattering.
I returned to the conference call after about 10 minutes and said to my friend, “My God. I hope everyone is OK.”
We now know everyone was not OK and in that short 10-minute span, five members of the Rivera family lost their lives in the fire that destroyed their home.
We also now know, based on reporting in the local media, that this tragedy may have been preventable.
We know that the property had a long, troubled history with Riverhead Town code enforcement including failed inspections, inoperable smoke detectors, no certificate of occupancy for the third floor apartment and, shockingly, that the same third floor apartment where the Rivera family perished lacked a second means of egress.
The town’s former building permits coordinator commented on the property owner, “She was not a cooperative landlord.”
Given what we now know, it is time to start asking questions:
- Why did it take 18 months for Riverhead Town code enforcement (which remained fully staffed during the COVID epidemic) to follow up on an uncooperative landlord’s failure to renew her rental permits that expired in March 2020?
- Why did the town’s former building permits coordinator issue a magic letter in 2009 stating that the third-floor apartment was pre-existing since before 1965 in contradiction to years of official town documents — including a 1997 letter written by the same building permits coordinator?
- Why did the former town attorney agree to provide the uncooperative landlord of a property with a troubled code enforcement history (who had 18 months to renew her rental permits and have the required inspection) another “couple of weeks” to remedy the lack of rental permits three weeks before the tragic blaze?
- Why did code enforcement fail to verify the second means of egress for the third floor apartment during four inspections since the issuance of the ‘magic letter’ in 2009? Are we choosing to not enforce New York State fire code in Riverhead?
- Is there an ongoing criminal investigation into this tragedy?
- How many other rentals in Riverhead are not in compliance with New York State fire code?
It is time for Riverhead Town leadership, which currently counts two former law enforcement officers and a volunteer firefighter in its ranks, to stand with residents and to demand a fulsomemaccounting of the systemic failures that resulted in this tragedy and what must be done to ensure that this tragedy does not repeat itself.
During the last election cycle, two of those officials running as candidates promised to represent ALL of Riverhead.
It is time to make good on that promise and announce an independent investigation by a capable third party into what transpired between the town and this uncooperative landlord during the time period of January 2009 to November 16, 2021.
If the town lacks the requisite resources or initiative to conduct the necessary investigation, Suffolk County or New York State must step in.
The surviving members of the Rivera family and the people of Riverhead deserve answers; and we need to ensure that no one will again have to watch five of their neighbors perish from their back stoop.
Steven Kramer is a poet, writer and political activist. He is a lead member of Indivisible North Fork. He lives in Riverhead.
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