Elm City forum focuses on response to December fire

Despite a city-sponsored public-safety forum last Wednesday designed to inform New Haven residents about issues relating to the restoration of downtown after a Dec. 12 fire, several members of the Board of Aldermen also convened that night in a private session to discuss questions left unresolved by the forum.

The forum — which was attended by residents and city officials — featured discussion of the city’s response to the three-alarm fire that caused roughly $10 million in damages and lost revenue in a city block southeast of the Green. Participants sought to bring the city’s attention to questions stemming from the Dec. 12 fire, ranging from firefighter health and insurance claims of the destroyed properties’ owners.

New Haven Fire Department chief Michael Grant speaks at forum to review the response to a three-alarm downtown fire Dec. 12.
Emma Ledbetter
New Haven Fire Department chief Michael Grant speaks at forum to review the response to a three-alarm downtown fire Dec. 12.

Ward 28 Alderman Moti Sandman, Ward 9 Alderman Roland Lemar, Ward 13 Alderman Alex Rhodeen and Ward 14 Alderwoman Erin Sturgis-Pascale called for the forum in December to keep discussion about the aftermath of the fire open.

Although one owner of a demolished property has sued the city and the second recently blamed the city for dumping contaminated soil on his property, neither case came up during Wednesday’s public forum, Sandman told the News. City officials do not generally discuss the details of ongoing litigation against the city in public settings, Sandman explained.

Instead participants discussed the New Haven Fire Department’s response to the fire at length.

In the weeks following the fire, some aldermen and city residents worried that firefighters at the scene may have been exposed to harmful toxins after city officials detected asbestos on the site the morning after the fire. The extent to which firefighters used their air packs, and subsequently avoided inhaling toxins, was previously unclear.

Sandman said that Egan said some of the firefighters did not use their packs all of the time while cleaning up the site. Under heavy usage, Egan explained, the masks last for less than 20 minutes.

To protect the city from future litigation, firefighters who were at the scene of the fire have since been given physical examinations by the city. The results of these examinations will be kept on record to document the health status of affected firefighters immediately after the fire.

Sandman said he also sought to use the meeting last week to clarify the city’s insurance policies, since it was unclear who would be financially responsible in the event that a firefighter claims he fell ill because of his work cleaning up after the fire. New Haven itself is an insured entity, Sandman said, but city policy dictates that if a single individual has a single insurance claim that totals more than $1.5 million, an outside insurance company handles the claim.

Livable City Initiative Director Andrew Rizzo was also present at the hearing, Sandman said. Rizzo defended his decisions — which he said were backed up by recommendations from outside construction experts — to demolish the Kresge and Spectors buildings, at 824-846 and 848 Chapel Street, respectively, because of concerns about structural damage.

Both Paul Denz, the owner of the former Kresges building, and John Ward, acting corporation counsel — the top legal counsel for New Haven — also attended, Sandman said.

Last week, Denz publicly disclosed faxes he sent to city officials stating that at the end of last month he had contracted an environmental consultant, who found contaminants in the soil that a city-hired demolition crew had dumped on the site of the former Kresges building. Denz has asked the city to remove the polluted soil at its own expense.

Neither Denz nor Ward said much at the meeting, according to Sandman.

Just over two weeks ago, Shang-Jin Hahn, the owner and tenant of 848 Chapel St., sued Rizzo and the city of New Haven for monetary damages. Hahn is alleging that the city’s demolition of the adjacent Kresges building damaged her building, so that it, too, had to be demolished.

Her business, the Concord 9 jewelry store, was uninsured.

As for who will pay for the demolition, Sandman would only comment on the city’s lien on demolished properties.

He would only say that he does not yet know how much the entire process will cost.

Lemar and Rhodeen did not return requests for comment Monday. Sturgis-Pascale was unable to attend the forum and could not comment on it.

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