Thursday, March 18, 2010

Mixed Response to Woodhaven Power Line Fire

No Response from 911, but Hero Neighbor Steps Up

By Conor Greene

When a stretch of power lines went on fire during Saturday night’s storm, Woodhaven residents were alarmed and frustrated when they were not able to reach a 911 operator, but pleasantly surprised by the efforts of an off-duty Con-Edison worker who lives nearby and didn’t hesitate to react to the dangerous situation.

The action started at about 6:20 p.m. near the corner of 90th Street and 86th Road, when Richard Fogel’s daughter told him the upstairs lights were flickering. He opened his front door and was “greeted by a wall of rather intense smoke” that blocked his view of the street. When the winds shifted, he saw that the “whole block of power lines was smoking really intensely” before the approximately 300-foot stretch of lines “erupted into flames.”

The chaotic scene drew many residents from their homes, including some who rushed to move their cars from beneath the wires, despite the obvious risk. “Lots of people called 911 - it was kind of pandemonium for a while - but not one soul got through,” said an outraged Fogel. “No even a message to stay on the line, no recording, connection, anything – just dead.”

Fogal figured the fire would go out once the lines broke and fell to the ground, but he was concerned about prospect of live wires sitting in deep puddles of water. After his unsuccessful 911 calls, Fogel contacted the 102nd Precinct directly and was told officers were aware of the situation. Cops finally arrived on scene at 6:46 p.m., but the officers immediately retreated to their patrol car and left after quickly assessing the scene, said Fogel. It wasn’t until 7 p.m. that the police took control of the situation.

“It was a busy night, so I can forgive the cops and fire department [which never came to the scene] but I cannot forgive 911,” said Fogel. “If they’re not there in an emergency, what the hell good is it? Never mind the storm damage, what if I was having a heart attack or there was a bank robbery? The point is, it’s a technology problem.”

However, there was one bright spot to the situation involving a neighbor who works for Con-Ed, which is a company that doesn’t normally receive praise from Queens residents. After retreating back inside his house minutes after the fire broke out, Fogel looked out the window and noticed a man wearing a yellow Con-Ed rain jacket standing in the street.

It turns out Fogel’s neighbor Jose Aldana was taking the trash out at about the time the power lines caught fire. For more than 20 minutes, he oversaw the situation and helped keep residents away from the dangerous wires until authorities finally arrived on the scene. “The guy dropped what he was doing and tried to keep people away,” said Fogel.

The residents “were extremely lucky to have such a dedicated resident volunteer his own time and put his own safety at risk to keep his fellow residents safe,” wrote Fogel in a letter to Aldana’s boss at Con-Ed. “To reiterate, [he] took the initiative to put his own safety aside… alone and in the pouring rain when no one else was available.”

After Con-Ed’s poor handling of prior emergencies, including the 2006 blackout, Fogel said it felt strange to be praising the company. On top of Aldana’s efforts, Fogel was complementary of the company’s response to the area the next day. “An army of them were out here, and everyone was back on the next day. They did the right thing here, and I’m going to give the cops and firemen the benefit of the doubt, as I’m sure it was a mess. But we at least deserved a police cruiser, as 40 minutes is a little long to respond.”

The city received the second-most 911 calls within a 24-hour period during the storm, with the amount of calls for help didn’t return to normal levels until Sunday morning, according to reports. The NYPD receives about 38,000 calls over a 24-hour period on a typical Saturday.

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