A fire that injured 18 children at an unlicensed daycare center in Kew Gardens Hills on Jan. 25 raised a great deal of outcry in its immediate aftermath.
Now city and state agencies are sorting out just what happened while elected officials in City Hall and Albany decide what steps to take next.
The fire at 147-07 72 Drive sent one child to the hospital in critical condition with what published reports said was smoke inhalation. Further updates on the child’s condition have been unavailable.
Through a spokesman, the state agency that licenses daycare facilities is not calling it an illegal operation so far.
“The New York State Office of Children and Family Services is devastated to learn of the injuries suffered by these children,” the agency said in an email. “While the program in question is not licensed by OCFS, the agency is conducting a thorough review to determine if it was, in fact, operating illegally. At this time, we cannot comment further on an active OCFS investigation.”
Inspectors with the city’s Department of Buildings slapped a full vacate order on the home, which the DOB website showed still was in force as of the Chronicle’s deadline. A department spokesman in an email said the daycare operation and a dental lab discovered in the home resulted in two violations being issued — one for construction work in the cellar without the proper DOB permits; and the other for allowing occupancy of the cellar, which was listed in city records as accessory storage space.
Both are civil matters with maximum fines of $25,000. The DOB said the case would be adjudicated by the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings.
Asked if it was conducting an investigation of its own, the NYPD referred all inquiries to the DOB and the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection. A spokesman for the latter said the agency does not typically investigate fire-related matters.
The office of Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz declined to comment as to whether there is or is not an investigation at this time.
Councilman Jim Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows), while offering prayers for the victims and their families last Thursday, was livid.
“A child was critically injured in what was a completely avoidable tragedy — not only because this daycare facility had no business operating in the first place, but also because, yet again, a dangerous e-scooter was to blame,” Gennaro said in a statement from his office. “The city rushed to legalize e-bikes and e-scooters in 2020 before my return to the Council without the proper regulations in place. Last year, six New Yorkers died in fires caused by these types of batteries and another 216 fires were connected to them. And just last week, a 63-year-old man was killed, and five others were injured in an East Elmhurst fire caused by an e-bike.”
Gennaro said it is obvious e-bikes and e-scooters pose a clear and present fire danger.
“That is why the Council has legislation drafted and under discussion to comprehensively regulate or ban these hazardous vehicles,” he continued.
Councilman Bob Holden (D-Maspeth), primary sponsor of the bill Gennaro referenced [see separate story in some editions or at qchron.com], also wants state action.
“We need to put a pause on the use of e-bikes and e-scooters until we figure out how to make them safe,” Holden said on his official Twitter feed. “… We need Albany to require that they are registered, insured, licensed and safe to operate, charge and store before we allow them to be used again.”
Albany was working on regulations even before the fire, according to Assemblywoman Nily Rozic (D-Flushing) and state Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Jackson Heights).
“The original legislation was not regulatory — it simply empowered cities and localities to make regulations that were appropriate with the understanding that NYC neighborhoods are different from those in the Adirondacks and in Western New York etc.,” a spokesperson for Rozic said in an email. “It is the localities that have not instituted regulation.
“It is also not merely an e-bike legalization issue that caused the incident — it was a combination of regulatory failures at play.
“That said, there are bills currently pending in the legislature that improve oversight of the batteries. Safety is of course always a concern — now that these bikes are legal it allows a lot more room for regulation and safety checks that previously were not addressed at all.”
“What happened last week at the unlicensed day care in Queens is a perfect storm of lapses in regulation,” Ramos said in a statement from her office. “A failure to enact universal child care led to a day care that wasn’t in compliance with critical safety measures. A failure to create parking, charging, and storage infrastructure to safely incorporate e-bikes into our city’s transit ecosystem has now put the legislature in a position where we need to push forward safety regulation.”
Gennaro, speaking of regulations, encouraged anyone knowing of an unlicensed daycare center in his district to report it to his office.
“The law is the law. The safety of our children is too precious to accept the risk posed by unlicensed and uninspected facilities,” he said. “There is a reason the city has building requirements for daycare facilities, and that is to ensure that they are safe.”
A Ramos spokesperson reiterated Rozic’s assertion that the original law “empowered the city to monitor, educate, and legislate around E-bikes,” and that legislators would like to work with the Council on solving the problems.
Ramos said her colleague, Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), has a pair of bills pending to address battery safety.
Bill S. 154 would prohibit “the sale of storage batteries for powered mobility devices unless such battery has been listed and labeled by a nationally recognized testing laboratory or other approved organization and such labeling is disclosed on the packaging for such battery.”
Bill S. 157 would prohibit “the sale of second-use lithium-ion batteries intended for use in a bicycle with electric assist, an electric scooter or a limited use motorcycle.”
Both bills are co-sponsored by Sens. John Liu (D-Bayside) and Kristen Gonzalez (D-Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan).
The Chronicle could not determine if the bills have companion legislation in the Assembly prior to deadline.
On its Twitter page, the FDNY has posted a video featuring Capt. Michael Kozo of the department’s Fire Safety Education Unit.
“Lithium-ion battery fires have increased dramatically in New York City with deadly consequences,” Kozo states in the video. “They are used in e-bikes and scooters, cars, laptops, tablets, phones and other common household devices.”
He said damaged or incompatible batteries and improper charging, storage or disposal can cause the battery to overheat, “leading to an explosive, aggressive fire that spreads rapidly, can reignite and is challenging to extinguish.”
The FDNY has multiple recommendations, including:
• do not store a bike or scooter near doors or windows, thus blocking exits in case of fire;
• do not leave devices unattended when charging or charge them overnight;
• only purchase and use devices that are listed by a qualified testing laboratory, such as UL;
• do not charge devices on pillows, beds or on a couch;
• only use manufacturers’ power cords and batteries made specifically for the device;
• keep batteries or devices at room temperature and away from direct sunlight or anything flammable; and
• if a battery overheats or you notice an odor, change in shape or color, leaking or hear noises from a device, discontinue use immediately.