New Year’s Day Fire Smokes Mayor Feld’s Home

Response Praised, Some Questions Raised

by Judy Silberstein

(January 3, 2007) An early morning fire in the attached garage under her Monroe Avenue home provided an unsettling start of the new year for Mayor Liz Feld. The mayor, her husband, three children and a nephew were awakened around 6:30 am on January 1st by their home fire detectors as black smoke filled the basement and main floor. Flames were shooting to the ceiling of the garage and thick clouds of smoke were billowing out from behind the house. The fire was doused by firefighters from Larchmont Village with support from the City of New Rochelle and Mamaroneck Village, while Mamaroneck Town firefighters covered the Larchmont fire house.

Mayor Feld
Mayor Liz Feld talked with News 12 and surveyed the damage outside her garage on January 1.
Although the fire was contained in the garage, smoke and heat damage to the main house may run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and take several months to repair, said Mayor Feld. The family is looking for a short term rental. “We have to redo all the floors – the living room floor buckled – and everything from the attic to the basement smells like smoke,” said the mayor.

The fire has been ruled accidental by Westchester County’s cause and origin team, which was immediately called to investigate. “It was a failure of an electrical circuit in the garage,” explained Larchmont Fire Chief Richard Heine. “It was part of the house fuse box and that will all have to be replaced. The house will definitely need to be rewired.”

“It was terrifying, I have to say, it’s terrifying,” said Mayor Feld, “It’s every parent’s nightmare to wake up with fire in the house and children sleeping.” One child, unbeknownst to the parents, had come in late and had been sleeping in the basement, separated from the fire only by a door. He and the rest of the family evacuated the home without injury, most of them fleeing outdoors barefoot.

Feld fire

Though hoses were brought in, fortunately no water had to be used inside the house. Photo by Sharon Keck.

It was the mayor who called in the alarm at 6:36 am, reaching Captain Stephen Epstein, who arrived a minute later along with the two other career firefighters on duty and Larchmont’s Engine 34 , 33, and Tower Ladder 7. “I just want to say how grateful I and my family are to him for his calm guidance over the phone and his oversight of the scene,” said Mayor Feld.

At the outset, Captain Epstein both attacked the fire and served as incident commander until Chief Heine arrived at 7:20 and officially called the fire under control at 7:23.

First Larchmont Fire Since Paid Chief Appointed

Ironically, this was the first major fire in the Village of Larchmont since the Village Board voted in May of 2007 to install a paid chief rather than a volunteer, as had been traditional. (See:Larchmont Appoints Paid Fire Chief; Many Volunteers Resign ) Mayor Feld, Chief Heine, and even some of the volunteers who opposed the fire department changes praised the department’s performance.

“I’ve never had a fire before, so I have nothing to compare it to,” said Mayor Feld, “but the response from the fire department was extraordinary and the way they were able to limit the damage - everything they did - was so professional.” She said “it seemed like swarms of firefighters” responded, and “they were so professional, surgical in attacking the fire.”

“Everything went off without a hitch – everything worked perfectly – our new radio system, the team work between all the departments - everything went perfectly smoothly,” said Chief Heine.

“The fire department did a nice job,” said Mike Wiener, a former Larchmont fire chief, former Village trustee and plaintiff in two suits against the current board over its hiring of the paid chief. He was among the first volunteer firefighters responding to the Monroe fire. “The bulk of the fire was out in the first thirty minutes,” he estimated.

Response Praised; Some Questions Raised

Nevertheless, the incident has raised questions about why the Town of Mamaroneck Fire Department, which now includes 13 Larchmont Village volunteers who resigned following Chief Heine’s appointment, was called to the fire house rather than the fire scene. (See: Larchmont mayor's house fire raised response issues.) The Mamaroneck Town department is 1.3 miles away on Weaver Street; New Rochelle firefighters came from the Harrison Street fire station, 2.3 miles away, and the Webster Avenue station, 3.4 miles away.

According to Chief Heine, Town of Mamaroneck (staffed by a combination of volunteers and career firefighters) is still the first fire department called to deliver mutual aid, but the City of New Rochelle (an all career department) has been moved up from number 5 to number 2 since May. “We asked TMFD to stand by to cover the Village because they are more familiar with our streets,” said Chief Heine. “This is nothing new – it is not unprecedented for the Town of Mamaroneck to standby.”

Getting mutual aid from New Rochelle is also not new, noted New Rochelle Fire Commissioner Raymond Kiernan. “We have over a 100 year history of helping each other out – we can prove it - we have a magnificent scroll mounted in fire headquarters from a grateful Larchmont Village for helping them battle a fire in the business district in 1902. And they’ve come to New Rochelle when we’ve had calamities over the years,” said the commissioner. “We’ve always had a great relationship – and want to continue it – there is no problem with us.”

“We will come into the jurisdiction and do whatever the requesting department asks us to do,” said Mamaroneck Town Fire Chief Dave Commender, who was celebrating his first day as chief (following two years as first deputy, preceded by two as second deputy and a total of 14 years as a volunteer firefighter). TMFD had already provided mutual aid at a working fire in Rye at 3:30 am before coming to Larchmont shortly after 6:30. “It was quite an inaugural day,” he commented.

“We’re always anxious to go to the scene of the fire, but we’re good soldiers and do what is requested of us,” said Chief Commender.

The call came from Larchmont’s Captain Epstein once he had arrived at the scene, which is consistent with policy giving the incident commander discretion to request whatever mutual aid he deems necessary, explained Chief Heine. “Every fire is different.”

“It is not policy to exclude the Town of Mamaroneck Fire Department from fighting fires in the Village of Larchmont,” stressed Chief Heine. However, he admitted that the months of controversy over his appointment have had an impact. “There is a lot of anger and a lot of hurt feelings. When you bring those things into the mix, things could happen,” he said. “Is it a concern of mine of an incident occurring that is not favorable to the fire service? Yes. Do I believe it will happen? Probably not. At this point in the picture of things it may be better to attempt to avoid any potential pitfalls. When you’re at the scene of an emergency, the fewer concerns the better.”

"For 6 or 7 months there has been nothing but, ‘the Village isn’t covered, the Village can’t do anything,'” said Chief Heine. “I am so proud of these guys – everything worked perfectly – a fantastic job was done by everybody," he added, praising the 16 Larchmont volunteers and career firefighters who responded.

Chief Commender’s position was: “I’m not interested in politics or personalities. My interest is in providing fire service to my district and to surrounding districts when required. I know of no incidents between my firefighters and any paid firefighters in Larchmont – none has been brought to my attention by Chief Heine.“

And what about the home owners?

“All the people who came to help us did an outstanding job – and that’s the only story that should be written,” said Joel Feld, the mayor’s husband. “We were incredibly fortunate to have gotten out of the house without perishing,” he added, “I am eternally grateful” to all who assisted. “Anyone who chooses to use this situation for their own political purposes should be ashamed of themselves.”