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Trump fought law requiring retrofit of sprinklers in New York City high-rises

A proposed 1998 law that would have required developers to install sprinklers in existing residential towers is back in the news, after a deadly fire in Trump Tower over the weekend

Fire Blazes On 50th Floor Of Trump Tower Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

Twenty years ago, now-President Donald Trump played a key role in lobbying against a law that would have required older residential buildings in New York City to be retrofitted with sprinkler systems. Fire safety experts have pointed out that such a sprinkler system could have mitigated the deadly effect of this weekend’s Trump Tower fire that killed one person on Saturday evening.

A four-alarm fire broke out on the 50th floor of Midtown’s Trump Tower in the apartment where 67-year-old art collector and dealer Todd Brassner lived. It is unclear what sparked the blaze, which also injured six firefighters. There were no sprinklers installed in Brassner’s 50th floor unit.

Fire experts agree that sprinklers have proved critical for saving lives in New York City’s high-rise fires. Statistics by the National Fire Protection Association note that sprinklers control or suppress a fire 97 percent of the time. Meanwhile, the number of fire fatalities in New York City rose 35% from 2016 to 2017. And it’s the second instance of a fire in the lavish Trump-owned Fifth Avenue tower this year: In January, a small electrical fire near the roof resulted in a small blaze and three minor injuries.

The so-called “Macaulay Culkin fire” and Guiliani’s push for sprinkler regulations

Two deadly fires that erupted in residential towers in the 1990s—including one that started in actor Macaulay Culkin’s family’s apartment on West 60th Street and killed four people—prompted former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to propose a bill that would require sprinklers to be installed in all high-rises.

It wasn’t the first time that a bill of this sort has wended through the city’s bureaucracy. However, each time it resurfaced, it quickly lost traction amid pushback from high-profile developers like Trump. As a 1998 New York Times article noted:

Archie Spigner, the chairman of the City Council’s Housing and Buildings Committee, said yesterday that he received a telephone call this week from Donald J. Trump, the real estate developer, who expressed concern about the high cost of installation and other problems that he had with sprinklers. Mr. Trump confirmed yesterday that he had ‘’received and placed calls’’ from and to various city officials.

It is that kind of easy access to city leaders by the opposition that proponents of sprinkler legislation fear. ‘’It is a hard battle, because real estate interests make political contributions,’’ said John A. Viniello, the president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association, which has also made contributions and whose members stand to profit from laws requiring sprinklers. ‘’If they are financially supporting the City Council and the Mayor, it is difficult for politicians to take action that is unpopular with them.’’

Ultimately, Giuliani would go on to pass the legislation, but as a modified version focusing primarily on new builds. The law required sprinklers in every unit and common hallway of new residential buildings with four or more units, and also required the installation of sprinklers in residential buildings that underwent renovations costing 50 percent or more of the building’s value.

Entirely exempt from the passed legislation requiring sprinkler systems were pre-existing buildings, like Trump Tower, as well as new developments in which building permits had already been filed, as per the Daily News. As the Times reported in 1999, “The Mayor signed the legislation even though he said he believed it was not strong enough, but he said he would appoint a task force to develop stricter fire safety regulations.”

In the wake of Saturday’s tragedy, President Trump sent out a tweet acknowledging the fire and its containment due to Trump Tower being a “well built building” while also thanking the “firemen (and women)” that worked to put out the blaze. There was no mention of Todd Brassner, nor sprinklers, nor the injuries that resulted from the fire.

It did not go unnoticed, particularly on Twitter, that Trump neglected to mention the fire’s fatality while praising the construction of his own building:

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Trump Tower

721 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY