No lives were lost in the huge fire that gutted a storage building on the Brooklyn waterfront over the weekend. But the flames put plenty of lives on display as the crumpling warehouse belched up its contents: decades’ worth of charred medical records, court transcripts, lawyers’ letters, sonograms, bank checks and more.
“They’re like treasure maps, but with people’s personal information all over them,” Spencer Bergen, 24, said of the half-charred scraps that he said he had seen strewn around the Williamsburg neighborhood as far inland as Berry Street, several blocks from the warehouse.
New York City sent disaster recovery contractors, equipped with nets, shovels and protective boots, to try to collect the debris. But still, beachcombers sifted freely through the trove of documents, picking their way through remnants of the days when many records were on paper and the city government was one of the few takers for north Brooklyn’s waterfront land.
Compared with the large — and increasingly commonplace — online breaches of personal information at corporations like Home Depot, Target and Sony, the potential damage from stray scraps of paper may seem slight. Still, a glance at a rocky jetty just south of the warehouse revealed a scattering of records stamped “confidential,” a health insurance form with a person’s Social Security number, a urinalysis report complete with a patient’s name and copies of checks featuring bank account numbers.
“If you wanted to steal an identity, I’m sure if you looked at that piece of paper, you’d find a medical record,” said Sherry Hanson, 50, one of the many curious onlookers who clambered down the rocks at the edge of Bushwick Inlet Park to get a closer look at the heaps of paper on Sunday.
Among the government agencies that said they had housed records in the CitiStorage warehouse at 5 North 11th Street were the state court system, and the city’s Administration for Children’s Services and the Health and Hospitals Corporation. Several local hospitals had stored medical records there as well. CitiStorage said the building, with six million cubic feet of storage, also held documents from law and financial services firms.
Reached on Sunday, the hospitals and city agencies sought to play down the possibility that reams of sensitive information had been thrown to the wind. At the same time, however, they said it was too early to know what types of documents had been lost.
The warehouse disgorged so many papers that they clogged the water-intake system of one of the fireboats aiming high-powered jets of water into the smoldering, ice-covered building, trying to smother flames that were still flaring up on Sunday. The current carried more papers to shore, luring people who paged through some documents, photographed others and kept more than a few as souvenirs.
“What if this was all diaries, instead of personal information? Love letters?” mused Loretta Rae, 38, who lives nearby. “If it was diaries,” she joked, “I’d definitely be down there reading it.”
Munirih Quinlan, 29, who works at a hospital , examined slides of what appeared to be an X-ray that had landed on a rock.
“This is crazy,” she said, recalling her training in recognizing Medicare fraud stemming from identity theft. “If you post anything,” she advised others, “make sure it doesn’t have people’s personal information on it.”
The city learned firsthand the dangers of storing important documents in waterfront buildings when storm surges from Hurricane Sandy ravaged two Police Department storage facilities in Red Hook and Greenpoint in October 2012. The department is still struggling to determine the extent of the damage to the Greenpoint building, which contained thousands of pieces of evidence.
Despite plans to move evidence away from the vulnerable Brooklyn waterfront buildings, however, the department has yet to do so, and the blaze over the weekend raised questions about how slowly the city was digitizing or otherwise protecting its records.
What types of records were stored in the CitiStorage warehouse or how many were damaged or dispersed remained a matter of confusion on Sunday evening. The state court system and the Administration for Children’s Services said they had been in the process of removing files from the building, making it unclear what still remained there, while the Health and Hospitals Corporation said it kept vital patient records in electronic form and that its operations would be unaffected.
Some members of the Greater New York Hospital Association — which includes Mount Sinai Health System, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System and NYU Langone Medical Center — kept records at CitiStorage, said Brian Conway, a spokesman for the association, but it was not clear which, if any, were involved.
About the possibility that confidential patient information might have been disclosed on a large scale as the wind scattered unburned records, Mr. Conway said, “There’s no reason to believe that’s a possibility.”
Yet in one indication of the city’s concern, the disaster recovery contractors, in their neon yellow jackets, sealed off the entrance to the rocky jetty with yellow caution tape early Sunday and began to scoop documents out of the water with nets and shovels.
“We’re just here to clean up the debris,” said one of the workers, adding that he did not have permission to explain further.
At a news conference on Sunday afternoon, the fire commissioner, Daniel A. Nigro, said the blaze was expected to continue smoldering for days as the paper inside continued to feed the flames.
The fire, which reached seven alarms, began around 6:20 a.m. on Saturday. But firefighters had also been called there two hours earlier for a smaller fire in the same location, which they found had been contained by the building’s sprinkler system. The firefighters then shut down the sprinklers to prevent further water damage to the paper records, and because sprinkler heads must be replaced after discharging water.
By the time the second emergency call came in, the sprinklers were offline, and the blaze was already large enough to draw scores of firefighters.
“It’s a building full of fuel,” Mr. Nigro said. “Once it got started, it was difficult to extinguish, especially under the extraordinarily rough conditions for the firefighters, with the extreme cold and strong winds.”
He said the department had interviewed three warehouse employees, but investigators had not been able to enter the building and were not close to determining the fire’s cause. Marshals were investigating whether the first fire had rekindled or a second fire started independently, and whether the fire had been deliberately set or sparked accidentally.
In Williamsburg, where luxury high-rises have rapidly replaced the old factories and warehouses and residents fear the 11-acre site where the CitiStorage building sits is next, it was not hard to find people who believed the fire’s cause was obvious.
Less than two blocks downwind from the smoldering waterfront, the cafe MatchaBar, on Wythe Avenue, reopened on Sunday; the acrid, ashy smoke had kept it closed the day before. Among the artists, musicians and writers gathered there was Lisa Markuson, 28, a blue-haired poet, who perched by the window with a Smith Corona typewriter, offering free haikus to customers.
Her ode to the fire:
we’re all pretty sure
that this was no accident
smoke clouds our vision
Vivian Yee, NY Times