Officials Told of Hazards Years Ago at MacArthur

An Islip fire marshal warned the town of serious fire hazards at MacArthur Airport more than two years ago, but Islip officials did not begin addressing the problems until they became public in June, records show.

In addition, more than a year ago, state officials raised concerns about the lack of fire sprinklers in the terminal outside a new airport restaurant, T.G.I. Friday's. But the town allowed the restaurant to open anyway.

Islip officials recently released hundreds of pages of records first requested by Newsday last November and May. Among them were office memos showing that then-Town Fire Marshal Matthew Curtis repeatedly called attention to fire-safety problems, ranging from misplaced sprinklers to an inadequate fire alarm system at the airport. There are no records of any responses to his memos.

Town Supervisor Eric Hofmeister said he didn't know why there were no responses. The commissioner who got the memos, John Scimeca, no longer works for the town and did not return calls for comment.

Curtis, who also left the town, declined to comment.

Both men reported to then-Town Attorney Vincent Messina, now in private practice. Messina said he never saw the memos.

As for fire safety at the airport, Hofmeister said, "We've had our code inspectors and our fire marshals out there reviewing the whole airport, and we are coming up with an issues list that we need clarifications on."

The town-owned airport, a regional transportation hub in Ronkonkoma that last year had more than 1 million people pass through it, has been undergoing an $82 million expansion by Southwest Airlines since 2003.

Problems reported in Newsday -- such as cracks in the newly constructed airport apron, fire hazards and possible financial irregularities -- have prompted federal, state and local investigations.

Councilman Christopher Bodkin, who has been the town board's liaison to the airport since 1993, did not return calls for comment.

On April 6, 2004, a daily engineer's diary written by an employee of Cashin Associates, a Hauppauge engineering firm hired to oversee the construction, noted that unnamed town personnel "expressed concerns" about putting fire sprinklers in electrical distribution rooms, according to the records. The records show Curtis visited the airport that day.

Sprinklers near electrical panels are considered dangerous because water could cause electricity to arc.

A week later, a Cashin employee also objected to the sprinklers and said a dry fire-suppression system must be used instead, according to the records. Then, on April 28, 2004, Curtis wrote a memo to Scimeca, pointing out that sprinklers "shall not be installed in a space where the discharge of water could be hazardous."

Despite the objections, sprinklers were installed in the main electrical control room.

Curtis also pointed out that air intake vents in the new Southwest terminal were located directly above the main natural gas pipes.

In June, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota disclosed that his office, which is investigating the airport, had found fire hazards, including the location of the natural gas pipes and the sprinklers in the main electrical control room.

Town officials have said that the airport is safe and that it complied with "all applicable codes" during construction.

In fact, officials from the New York Department of State had told the town that the airport was not in compliance with state code, according to records obtained by Newsday.

In an April 6, 2005 letter to the town, assistant regional director W. Roy Scott said the fact that the T.G.I. Friday's restaurant had sprinklers was not enough to make it legal. Sprinklers are required in the terminal as well so that diners fleeing a fire would be protected.

Town Engineer Steve Rizzo responded that an earlier variance granted by the state allowed the construction of the restaurant.

A year later, in a May 16 letter, Scott made clear that the variance in fact did not grant that. Hofmeister said the town fire marshals were "reviewing" the situation.

MacArthur timeline

July 6, 2006 -- Islip town officials are unable to locate records to prove fire inspections were done at MacArthur Airport.

June 30 -- Newsday reports work had not begun on a $1 million ventilation system upgrade that had been approved a year earlier.

June 26 -- U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer asks the U.S. attorney general to look into the funding of MacArthur Airport's expansion to determine whether taxpayers were cheated. Schumer was reacting to Newsday reports that federal, state and Islip Town records showed that $65.2 million in public money was being spent to fund the expansion.

June 21 -- Islip officials say the airport is safe.

June 20 -- Suffolk district attorney says inspection of expansion projects at MacArthur Airport has uncovered fire risks that need immediate correction; the hazards are so significant that they could cause an explosion or allow dangerous natural gas to be drawn into the terminal, the DA says.

June 9 -- Newsday reports that cracks posing a potential safety hazard to airplanes are present on the newly constructed apron where planes pull up

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