Just below is my story of October’s “crisis in the kitchen” at my apartment. Scroll down or click here to read the the note to neighbors by Maya, my mom.
Julia Child, French cooking expert and the first celebrity television chef, was beloved for her unflappable, upbeat disposition. She thrived on fixing mistakes and unforeseen problems in the kitchen. Can’t flip an omelet? Just turn it into scrambled eggs. When Julia once dropped a potato pancake on the counter during a live taping of her show, “The French Chef,” she serenely scooped it back in the skillet. “Nobody’s looking!” Julia told thousands of viewers.
She only lost her composure a handful of times. Once was when a small fire erupted on set – a towel and potholder had ignited on the stove. The cameraman stopped shooting, and Julia was furious. She wanted to show her viewers what to do about a kitchen fire at home.
Alas, Julia was not standing by my electric stove last week when a skillet of vegetable oil ignited. I was heating it in preparation for searing some lovely cod fillets, inspired by one of Nobu Matsuhisa’s recipes. Gaping in horror at the orange flames, I vaguely recalled some safety instruction about smothering them with non-flammable material or baking soda. An image of the mini-fire extinguisher in my old Santa Monica kitchen crossed my mind. But the fire looked insistent and in my compact apartment kitchen, the sink is but an arms-length away. “Fire? Water!” I thought, and thrust the skillet under the running faucet. Within seconds, it was gone. Barely a wisp of smoke remained. But a plume of superheated steam shot up at the ceiling sprinkler.
I live in an ultra-cool, recently-built, fifth-floor apartment in Little Tokyo with Rocket (dog) and Emma (cat). Also Maya (mom). The building has what must be a world-class fire detection and sprinkler system. The fire alarm sounds regularly and the Fire Department, a few blocks away, rushes over in response. But the building’s sprinkler system had never been activated – until now.
When the hot steam hit the sprinkler just a few feet overhead, disaster ensued. Fire alarms began to blare and suddenly, the sprinkler ejected high-pressurized streams in every direction, quickly flooding the kitchen, living room, dining room and office. Most horrific was the sight of water pummeling book shelves and – worse – the dining room table that had been covered with my schoolwork and books.
Maya darted under the sprinkler crazily pulling out books and papers from the downpour. (Totally futile.) I flew downstairs to tell the lobby security guard what had happened – no fire, no emergency, only a sprinkler gone wild. But it needed to be turned off! And the fire alarm, too, which by now had routed all my neighbors from their apartments. My hands were trembling so badly I could barely negotiate the elevator buttons to return to the fifth floor.
The firefighters had arrived and were sloshing around in the two inches of water flooding the rooms and spilling into the outside hallway. Clearly the priority was to disable the sprinkler. But how? No one could figure it out until a full half-hour later.
Upon first entering the apartment, the fire-fighters had called for a water cleanup team. (By the end of the night, the scene would include five fire trucks, a few dozen firefighters and an ambulance.) The brigade quickly arrived, armed with giant squeegees to push the water from the hallway back through the apartment to the balcony and over the edge to rain down on the crowd who had assembled below. In the process, water was forced into the two bedrooms and office that until then had been had remained relatively dry.
I observed the aftermath, feeling useless. In the kitchen, a stack of newspapers was reduced to pulpy gunk. My treasured books had warped into strange shapes. A term paper draft shriveled into a wet ball. But I was most concerned about the computer and electronic items. I unplugged my laptop, only to feel a shock surge through my arm and body. I yelped and slogged back through the water.
Once the water was mostly cleared, the firefighters retreated. It must have been around 1 am. But the building alarm continued to blare until 2:30, three hours after it began screeching . Listen to my video of the firefighters sloshing out water and you’ll understand how awful this was for our neighbors and for us also.
From time to time we would look down at the street to see dozens of people with their kids, plus dogs and cats in carrier boxes. Many were looking up toward our windows and balcony as if it were the latest first-run flick. The five fire trucks and their guys running in and out was something of a spectacle. But was this show really so riveting? Well, no. It seems that the firefighters had evacuated the building – kind of amazing, given that there was no fire. I guess people could have simply returned to their apartments but many believed that there was an actual emergency. Later we would be told that the alarm sound inside was just too terrible for anyone to tolerate for more than a few minutes. (Our darling seven-year-old neighbor Sara slept through the commotion but her parents weren’t so fortunate.)
Maya and I spent the rest of the night slopping up water, finding new puddles of gray liquid, trying to salvage some of my books and relegating others to the trash. We slept for a couple of hours, then woke up to plod ahead into the mess. We learned to live with the sound of industrial fans and humidifiers, each the size of R2-D2 and as loud as a Boeing.
Throughout this ordeal, I have tried to document sights and sounds with my camera: the mess of cords and wires unplugged from the computer; firefighter jackets piled in my bathroom sink; my Border Collie, Rocket, thrilled to be sloshing around the apartment with the firefighters; the culprit sprinkler. And more, as you’ll see in my video and photo slideshow above.
More than a week later, the mess is still being cleared. My apartment has brand new floors, a patched ceiling, empty bookshelves and bare walls where art work had been. Certainly, Julia Child would have something to say – a lesson or an example or a moral. But what have I learned?
Mostly, I have questions. Why did a pan of cooking oil burst into flames? How did my electric stove get that hot? Why couldn’t the sprinkler be disabled? What caused the alarm to sound for three hours? I also wonder how many cooks are equipped to deal with a flare up in the kitchen. Only one thing’s for sure. When it comes to learning how to handle a kitchen fire, I truly got my feet wet.
A NOTE FROM MAYA
Maya, my mom, wrote to our neighbors about the incident. Here’s what she said.
October 29, 2011
This note is about the “fire alarm incident” from last week, in the late hours of Tuesday, October 19, and into Wednesday. I was the one who triggered the alarm and sprinkler (along with my daughter, Daina) and I want to explain what happened. I totally realize how miserable it was to be turned out of your apartments at midnight and then to listen to the earsplitting alarm blaring for three hours. I know that many of you believed there was an actual fire and that must have freaked you out as well. I learned that there was extensive water damage in the building and in some of your apartments. For sure, there was major water damage in our apartment and we’re still trying to recover. Daina and I are so sorry to be the guilty ones behind this disaster.
Here’s my best try to explain what happened.
Around 11 pm, Daina and I started making dinner (we eat late). Daina began heating vegetable oil on the front burner in our trustworthy WearEver stainless steel skillet. The oil was hot and Daina was about to add some cod fillets. (It was a variation on the black cod recipe that Nobu Matsuhisa made famous.) Suddenly the pan ignited! Obviously, the first thing to do was to move the pan from the heat. But where? There were no free burners and an electric stove takes forever to cool. There was no neat fireproof mat handy, no fire extinguisher, no fireproof cover and no baking soda to smother the flames. The burner was an irate, glowing red. The flames were contained, but insistent. Daina did the sensible thing. She grabbed the pan’s handle (not that hot, for some reason), swiveled towards the sink, turned on the faucet and thrust the pan under the cold water. Within seconds, the fire was out.
The situation should have been over, right? Well, no. A plume of hot steam was still rising from the pan headed straight toward the sensor of the overhead sprinkler. In our apartment the ceiling above the sink is dropped – about a foot lower than the main ceiling where the other sprinklers are – leaving barely four feet between the faucet and the sprinkler. Within a minute, the sprinkler was were activated. A forceful surge of water gushed forth. And the alarm began to blast. (And blast and blast and blast…….)
Daina flew down to the lobby to report the situation. THERE WAS NO FIRE!!!!! But the sprinkler and alarm needed to be turned off now ASAP!!!! Panicked, I tried to move furniture, books and other important items out of the sprinkler’s reach. (Ha ha ha.)
The Fire Department pulled in quick – maybe about ten minutes. They were prepared for “The Towering Inferno” but instead met “When the Levee Breaks.” One of them radioed for a water control team. Others climbed on the counter and tried to disable the sprinkler. (Why is it called a “sprinkler?” Sprinkle doesn’t begin to describe the enormous pressure of those water jets.) The apartment continued to flood. Eventually, the fire guys smashed a hole in the ceiling around the sprinkler. It took a half hour to staunch the water. Maybe longer. Meanwhile, water cascaded down from our fifth floor balcony. Headed in the other direction, water flowed out the front door, down the hall and into the elevator shaft. The water removal team with their giant squeegees would return that water back into the apartment and out the patio door, forcing water into our two bedrooms and office along with way. The firefighters told us to roll up rugs to prevent the water from flowing into those rooms, but of course, our rugs were already floating on the floor. In retrospect, it would have helped if the water control team had brought along some sandbags and tarps.
Before the evening was over, we would count five fire trucks and an ambulance outside the building. (We almost needed the paramedics when Daina was practically electrocuted trying to unplug her computer. Perhaps the computer was electrocuted too because it hasn’t functioned since. Her second computer, a mini, needed a new charging unit before it agreed to power up.)
As the Sakura residents know, the fire alarm stopped shrieking around 2:30 and most residents were able to return to their apartments for a few hours of sleep before work or school on Wednesday. But not everyone. The three apartments below mine also suffered severe water damage; the seeping water demolished their ceilings and walls, as well as floors. The lobby was also affected.
In our apartment, it’s all water damage. Our sofa was saturated and is still on the balcony, maybe drying, maybe not. We sent two area rugs (6×9) for professional restoration (Vista Carpets) although there are no guarantees. One is a Turkish wool rug that’s been around for generations. Much of our art work is destroyed. (Nothing by Picasso, but still…..) A hundred or so books were soaked and are now in book heaven. Daina, a college student and journalist lost the texts and papers she was using for current assignments. They became gooey pulp in the blink of an eye.
Then, there’s the damage to the apartment. The bedroom carpets were partially soaked and needed to be lifted, dried and fitted with new padding. The entire “hardwood” laminate floor has now been replaced. (It might have been possible to patch the boards but the original materials are no longer available.) The hole surrounding the sprinkler needed to be patched and painted. There’s still water under the stove and washer/dryer. And our apartment is now overrun with tiny black flies. Other damage continues to rear its drippy head.
I am left with many questions and concerns about the incident. Why would such trivial, short-lived flames justify such excessive sprinkler activity and subsequent destruction? Why would a sprinkler and sensor be installed four feet above a sink where there is likely to be steaming water? Shouldn’t all the sprinklers be at standard ceiling height? Why wasn’t it possible to turn off the sprinkler before it caused major flooding throughout the building? Why did it take three hours to turn off the alarm? Why was the building evacuated when the actual fire was extinguished before the alarm began sounding? Why did it take three hours to deactivate the alarm? And why did a skillet of vegetable oil ignite? (I am a serious cook, an experienced cook, and I have never experienced this.) Was the temperature of the burner excessively high? Are our stoves safe?
The next day Sakura Management sent an incorrect and misleading letter to residents. It claims “the safety features prevented damage.” Huh? That’s backwards. In fact, the “safety features” i.e., the sprinkler, CAUSED the damage. The letter asserts that the sprinklers contained the fire to just one apartment. Huh? The sprinklers didn’t contain the fire; they didn’t even extinguish it. The fire was out before the sprinkler was activated.
I was disappointed that no member of Sakura management entered the apartment to assess the situation. None of the Sakura managers spoke to me or Daina about the incident. Is there any incident analysis or process improvement action taking place? Is it because the building is now under new management?
Although the firefighters were conscientious I was surprised that the various crews didn’t seem to be communicating with one another. Each crew (five in all, I think) ran up the stairs with pick-axes, hoses, fire extinguishers, ladders and other heavy and unnecessary equipment, looking for a fire that didn’t exist.
Each time I looked down at the street below I was stunned by the crowd standing outside with their kids, dogs and even cats in carriers. Several residents told me they believed that the building was actually on fire. I’m sure that caused apprehension. As dreadful as it was to observe the surrounding chaos and hear the piercing alarm for three hours, it must have been worse outside until 2:30 without any reassurance or information. I was also told that some residents found the alarm so painfully loud that they felt compelled to stay outside.
I am hoping to learn more from the Fire Department and will be back in touch with any new information I pick up. If you’d like to reach me personally, you can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or become my Facebook friend. Again, we’re so sorry for the disruption. And please don’t forget to see Daina’s post, “Crisis in the Kitchen.”
Wow, I’m sorry to hear that. Especially after glancing at the marvel that your apartment was, I am in quite a shock to see the beauty of it get ruined by what seemed to be mechanical errors (on the electric stove and sprinkler system), things that could have been tested numerous times to avoid such commotion.
I do hope things get better for you and that you’re able to make the best out of the items that got damage. I’ll make sure to bring something back from NYC to assist with the art that covered your apartment…
Glad to know that you guys are safe. My wife and I reside in Sakura as well. Sad to hear about the lack of follow up from Sakura.
The mistake was the water, oil fires should be dealt with with a wet towel over the pan after the primary source of heat is removed. oil fires particularly ‘chip pan’ fires are the most common reasons for houses burnt down in the UK so they run lots of advertisements on how to deal with it. the water will instantly steam and can throw hot burning oil all over you.
I’m a neighbor at Sakura. I would like to sincerely thank you for your apology. It is really not necessary to apologize; accidents happen all the time and to everyone. No one I’ve spoken to is angry about it. I’m glad that neither you, your mom, Rocket, Emma, nor anyone else was injured.
The main thrust of your very well-written account seems to be a huge frustration with how difficult it was to stop the flow of water once the fire had been extinguished. On that point I share your frustration. And related to that, how a fire alarm system could be designed such that it is so susceptible to water damage as to render it inoperable. In our case, it was not possible to shut off neither the water nor the alarm until LONG after the emergency had passed. I hope new management investigates these issues and solves them. We could hardly expect Related to investigate as they were out of the picture 2 days later.
I would like to make a few comments though. I’m no chef, but if you were going to sear the cod in oil atop the stove rather than grilling the fish in an oven as Matsuhisa’s recipe calls for, I would use a skillet. Not the sauteing pan you were using. I don’t know how much oil was used, since searing only requires a modicum of oil, but it is irrelevant to cooking safety; you NEVER leave a stove top unattended, ESPECIALLY with all four burners going. If you don’t believe me and since you invoke the spirit of Julia Child AND you ask IF Julia would have something to say, watch this:
Searing requires little more than a brushing of oil at a medium high heat. Clean oil will begin to smoke a bit when it’s hot enough to sear the fish. But if the oil is reaching the point of combustion, there will be a lot of smoke. The point is, oil doesn’t spontaneously ignite without first smoking; there would have been plenty of warning for anyone in attendance stove side.
On to the fire. You can easily be forgiven for not being prepared for a kitchen fire, or any fire for that matter; very few people are. This could have happened to anyone. But that sauteing pan should have a matching lid someplace; I’d have it handy or at least know where it is. Being able to cover a vegetable oil fire is the first line of defense absent a ‘K” rated extinguisher. Unless maybe the cover is made of glass. I’d recommend the purchase of some cooking mitts or silicone gloves as well; grabbing that hot pan bare-handed wasn’t wise. Lastly, dousing your oil fire with water may have been reflexive but definitely not sensible. In fact, it’s the WORST thing you can do to an oil fire. You can google why that is so. If you cook a lot, especially with vegetable oil, get a kitchen fire extinguisher with a “K” rating. There are plenty of on-line websites full of tips for additional kitchen fire safety/do’s and don’ts. Keep a baking soda box open in the fridge; it will help control odors (not that your fridge has odors…) and you’ll have it in case of future (hopefully not) fires. Better make that two boxes.
I’d be VERY interested in the results of any fire department investigations. The “sprinkler” heads in our building aren’t supposed to activate unless they’re exposed to a temperature of about 160 degrees F for probably at least 10 seconds. But you say it was “within a minute” when it blew. So either the sprinkler took too long to activate if the temperature did reach 160F or it didn’t reach 160F and should not have activated. IF it did reach160F AT the sprinkler head, then there was some serious heat four feet below it. Either way, I’d like to know if these devices are flawed or not. By the way, a google search yields documentation stating that the minimum clearance for a sprinkler head is only 18 inches. This may not sound logical to you or me, but there it is. As far as sprinkler placement goes, a building designer can’t possibly anticipate EVERY possible type and position of fire that might occur relative to the sprinkler head’s placement. I’m just glad we have them. I DO now wonder if they are flawed or not. Keep us posted. I’ll definitely be VERY careful what I place under the sprinkler heads from now on. Also, I’d like to know if you find out if the stove top heating elements and/or controllers are defective or not so we can all know whether or not it is safe to cook with them. Until then I won’t be taking my eye off the stove’s eye!
Also, I especially don’t get being frustrated with and second-guessing the firefighters. They didn’t evacuate the building. At least not my part of the building. Even if they had, I would have been only too happy to comply; why take chances with people’s lives. Remember, you knew what was going on, most of the rest of us didn’t. Anyway, I left of my own accord. I already knew the fire had been put out. I knew that it had become an issue of getting the water supplying your sprinklers (I agree it’s a lousy name, but that’s just what they call them) shut off. But as you say, the noise finally became unbearable. So I left the building. Firefighters are HIGHLY trained professionals. They have rules and protocols with DECADES of science, experience and training to back them up. Do not question whether or not their equipment was necessary or not. If there is the slightest chance of a fire in this huge pile of wood we all call home, I don’t care if they run up and down every hall and stairway with every last piece of equipment at their disposal! They were doing their job. End of story. NO need to dis the firefighters.
Again, I’m very glad everyone is ok, but I am very sorry for your material loss; I can only try to imagine how it feels to lose treasured possessions and personal mementos.
the smoke point of cooking oil (depending on which type) is anywhere from 320F olive to 520F avocado ) . so when its on fire its really hot, then if you add water, water is denser than oil so it goes under the oil the heat steams the water and forces its way back through the oil, which spatters it and increases the surface area, this allows more oxygen in for a faster hotter burn. 160F for an oil fire is nothing, even with a gap.
Oh my God, Daina, I’m so glad you’re okay. Sounds like a fiasco you’ll remember for a lifetime! I hope nothing valuable got ruined…but I can imagine what the sprinkler might have done to all your precious books and carpet and urgh flies? Is everything under control now? I hope it is!
Tons of hugs to you and your mother!