On June 14, 1974, an apartment building at 180 Central Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn, went up in flames and took the lives of Carmen Molina and two children who, with the rest of their family—the children's father and another daughter—were preparing to move out of the building.
The Molinas lived on the building’s third and top floor. The fire escape was gated and locked. The father, Miguel, jumped from the third floor to get help, but on impact, broke multiple bones.
Sonia, 9, the middle daughter, was spending the night in her grandmother’s home not far away. At dawn, she and her grandmother woke to pounding on the door. It was Sonia’s aunt, come with news of the fire.
The nearest fire company, Engine 218, was just around the corner from the three-floor walk-up—the backs of the two buildings practically touched—but the crew was out on another call and didn’t arrive on the scene until rescue was impossible. Miguel was ambulanced to the hospital and the fire was put out, but nothing could be done to save Carmen Molina or her two children.
Fire marshals later reported that the fire was fueled by gasoline poured from the third floor down to the first, but their investigation never found the perpetrator. In 2009, when Sonia Molina shared her story on CityofMemory.org, a New York City history-preservation project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, she had lived almost 35 years not knowing who lit the fire that stole more than half of her family.
Today, the lot at 180 Central Avenue sits empty.
Arson—defined by the FBI as "any willful or malicious burning or attempting to burn, with or without intent to defraud"—is a complicated crime. A property crime that can also be a violent offense, arson requires an investigation just to determine whether or not it happened. It stems from a variety of motives, including emotion, hatred or simple greed. And arson victims don’t always know they are victims: "If you’re robbed, you call the police. If your house is on fire, you don’t assume it was set on purpose," says criminologist and author Franklin Zimring.
In 1970s New York, arson was a fact of life. Days without flames were few and far between, until the city and its remaining residents decided to take action. Those days are gone—from a high of 13,752 cases in 1976, arsons fell to around 2,000 in 2012.
The radical reduction of arson hasn’t received nearly as much attention as other parts of New York City's renaissance. This may reflect questions about the accuracy of the data and the rigor of investigations behind it.
Vacant buildings, piles of trash because Sanitation had stopped making full rounds, homeless holing up and lighting fires to keep warm—all of these plus rampant crime and drug use, a sour economy and desperate landlords contributed to arson levels in the bad old days. Gasoline was the typical accelerant.
Vincent Dunn, unofficial FDNY historian who in the 70s and 80s served as division and field commander in the Bronx and Harlem, tells the story of an apartment building in the Bronx where a resident reported the scent of gasoline. One of his firefighters went to the top of the building and examined fan vents on the common roof space.
"He lifts up the vent, and he sees a gallon of gasoline with an open top in there," Dunn says. At three other vents, he found the same thing. "And a wick that was charred, but went out."
Finding gasoline on roofs, at the tops of stairways, near anything flammable was common, but investigating fires, tracking down the perpetrators was not.
"Arson was like a joke," Dunn says. "You’d say, ‘We suspect an arson’ . . . and nobody would ever come. You’d leave the scene. Two hours later or a day later, an investigator would come up and maybe take a look, but by that time, all the evidence was not handled properly."
Enter the Red Caps
Howard Cosell may have said the Bronx was burning, but really several parts of the city were in flames. According to one city report, Brooklyn led the way with 40.7 percent of the city’s 8,312 arson fires in 1980. The Bronx followed closely behind with 30.3 percent.
Arson Incidents Recorded by NYPD
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It wasn’t until the late 70s, when a new chief fire marshal, John Regan, took charge of the Bureau of Fire Investigation that the FDNY began making successful attempts to stamp out the arson epidemic.
"He starts this program called the Red Caps," Dunn says. "He makes all the marshals wear red baseball caps, and he makes them respond to any all-hands working fire, regardless of whether we declare it suspicious or not."
The Red Caps assumed a presence in arson-rife neighborhoods, staying in trailers on a rotational basis in South Bronx, Harlem, the Lower East Side and other arson-heavy areas. As soon as a fire was reported, they went to the site, began investigating, interviewed onlookers and victims, and made arrests.
"They got to the scene at the time of the fire. Not two hours later or a day later," Dunn says.
Video: Remembering the Happy Land tragedy
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