A little over a week ago Hiroshi Takagaki died trying to put out a fire that started when his younger brother, Koji, was smoking in bed in the Astoria apartment the two men shared. Koji Takagaki is now in the Weill Cornell Medical Center burn unit in critical condition.
Many factors contributed to Hiroshi Takagaki’s death—Koji’s smoking in bed, the apartment’s lacking a smoke detector, Hiroshi’s vain attempts to put out the blazing mattress instead of immediately fleeing the apartment. One major element in this tragic tale, however, had its beginnings more than a year ago when Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the closing of six firehouses throughout the city. Among the firehouses closed was the headquarters of Engine Company 261-Ladder Company 116 at 37-20 29th St. The Takagaki brothers’ apartment was in a three-family building at 32-50 38th St. The first units to respond to the fire were from Engine Company 262, based in a firehouse at 30-89 21st St., some nine blocks farther from the fire location than the shuttered Engine 261.
Although the first firefighting units were on the scene some seven minutes after the fire was called in, some sources maintain that firefighters would have been at the fire in five minutes or less if they had been dispatched from Engine 261 instead of Engine 262. Shaving two minutes off the time it took for Engine 262’s apparatus and personnel to reach the fire scene could literally have been the difference between life and death.
We do not in any way wish to disparage the firefighters of Engine 262. We know they responded quickly and fought valiantly to save lives and property. But minutes count in a fire situation, especially because the intensity of a fire doubles every 30 seconds. Closing Engine 261 increased firefighters’ risks as well as those of the civilians they selflessly fought to save.
Firehouses were closed by the mayor as a cost-cutting measure. The flip side of that particular coin is revenue raising, and a law to do just that is under discussion even as we speak. Sales taxes are proposed to be raised to at least 8.75 percent. The resultant revenues will be used for another public service: funding the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Like closing the firehouses, this is a measure that, while it offers some superficial attractions, has no underlying merit. It has been proven on more than one occasion that raising sales taxes does nothing to help New York City’s economy—indeed, such measures only make things worse. City residents spend less on taxable items and those who can, travel to do their buying outside the city in other municipalities, counties or states with lower sales taxes. A sales tax hike results in less revenue for the city, not more.
Monies derived from a sales tax hike would be allocated to the subway system. Any number of people who daily find themselves a captive audience on the subways would question how any such funds are being spent. Delays, breakdowns and dirtier trains and platforms give evidence that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority seems to be misguided in some of its spending habits.
The agency plans to compound the situation by closing token booths and having booth clerks patrol the platforms and completely automating train operation as much as possible. Both measures have little to recommend them. Closed firehouses endanger civilians and firefighters; closed token booths and fully automated trains put passengers’ and transit workers’ lives in peril. Any miniscule monetary amount that might be saved is cancelled out completely by the potential cost in human life. Reopen the firehouses, keep clerks in token booths and conductors and train operators in their cabs and lower sales taxes—the increased revenue will compensate many times over. This is one situation where we have to cut taxes in order to raise revenues. By so doing we’ll be saving lives as well.