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Fire officials: No sprinklers in store basement

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The Astoria hardware store at the center of Sunday’s fire which killed three firefighters and injured more than 50 people did not have a basement sprinkler system, Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen told a news conference Monday.

Von Essen said if sprinklers had been installed in the basement where propane tanks, paints and other flammables were stored, the three firefighters would still be alive.

Fire marshals now believe two teenagers — ages 13 and 15 — playing behind the building may have tipped over an open can of gasoline, spilling the flammable liquid into the hardware store’s basement, Von Essen said at another news briefing Tuesday.

Investigators think a water heater in the basement may have sparked the fire by igniting the gasoline. Von Essen said a sprinkler system in the cellar could have prevented the fire from touching off the deadly explosion.

Von Essen said the exact cause of the fire at the Long Island General Supply store at 12-22 Astoria Blvd. was still under investigation. “We don’t know yet what caused such a violent explosion,” he said.

Fire Chief Brian Dixon said until fire marshals could gain access to the site, the cause could not be determined.

“Fire marshals were at the scene but were unable to get into the cellar due to instability,” said Dixon.

The building was demolished by the fire and a crane was used to clear the way through the debris for fire investigators.

“A crane was brought in and will carefully remove the upper floors<’ Dixon said. “We’ll look through all of that, document and photograph it.”

But he emphasized the building was not stable enough yet for inspectors to enter the cellar without the threat of its collapsing on them.

A hazardous materials permit inspection was conducted at the hardware store in November, Von Essen said. “They had legitimate permits for lacquer and thinner and varnish,” he said.

But because of the age of the 75-year-old, family-owned store, the basement was most likely grandfathered into the law, allowing it to avoid compliance with new sprinkler regulations, the fire commissioner said.

Beginning in the 1960s, New York state law required commercial buildings storing flammable materials to be equipped with sprinklers.

As far as fire officials could determine, there were no violations issued against the building, Dixon said.

He said a private company inspected the hardware store’s fire extinguishers two weeks and found no problems.

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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