Even now, nearly 20 years later, I can still picture the two tiny bodies huddled in a closet where the toddlers had taken refuge to escape flames engulfing the locked room.
It was 1998 and I was a New York Police Department detective commander in the 47th precinct in the Bronx. The apartment on Tilden Street where those two children, boys aged 2 and 4, died was a crime scene.
I think about those boys and the terror they must have experienced in their last minutes as they realized they couldn’t escape.
And when I see places like the illegal school at 33 Forshay Road in Monsey, I fear I will once again be called to the scene of a tragedy where young lives are lost.
As county executive, I am not going to let that happen on my watch.
I have again called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to empower the county to perform fire inspections at private schools in Ramapo and Spring Valley.
Both municipalities have made it clear that they can’t handle the job on their own. The state itself cited shoddy, questionable work by a Ramapo fire inspector who gave passing grades to private schools that had clear safety violations – including padlocked doors and a lack of smoke detectors.
So why is there reason to think that Ramapo and Spring Valley can do the job at all?
We ask once again: give the job to us. Rockland County will make sure those inspections are done right and, most importantly, that they are enforced.
The state this week ordered Ramapo to improve its documentation of fire inspections. A good first step, but still not enough.
What has to happen before the state takes action? How many children have to die?
I am sickened by the sight of the firetrap at 33 Forshay Road – a single-family home being used as a school, with exits blocked by bookcases, inoperable smoke detectors ripped from the ceiling, and mounds of garbage and other hazardous conditions.
I wouldn’t let my children or grandchildren attend a school like that. It is hard for me to imagine that a parent would knowingly allow their children to be in such dangerous conditions.
I have instructed the Rockland Department of Health to inspect that site and any other place they have reason to suspect hazards exist.
The problem is, however, that the county has the authority to cite an owner for hazards like rubbish on the premises or standing water that attracts mosquitoes. The county can also inspect schools that have dormitories or prepare food.
But the county lacks the authority to do a fire inspection. That’s a job for the town or village. And Ramapo and Spring Valley clearly aren’t up to it.
So once again we ask the state this simple question: how can you stand by and watch while the lives of children are endangered?
Is it going to take horrific images of children in body bags to get the state to act?
This is a tragedy waiting to happen. The county of Rockland, under my direction, is ready, willing and able to conduct these inspections.
The lives of children in our community depend on it.