Skyscrapers rain terror on New York

New York's skyscrapers are crumbling alarmingly, showering debris into the streets far below. Last week big chunks fell off two buildings and another collapsed, endangering the New Year's Eve celebrations in Times Square. And before Christmas a ton of bricks came tumbling from another skyscraper.

The incidents, which have turned New Yorkers into so many Chicken Lickens, akin to the children's storybook character who feared the sky would fall on his head, follow deregulatory moves which have given much of the responsibility for checking the safety of buildings to the owners. The authorities are expecting more falls this winter as severe weather sets in.

The first collapse happened on 7 December, when a ton of bricks fell from the facade of a 40-storey building in Madison Avenue, injuring two people, closing the street for days, and bringing chaos to the pre-Christmas traffic. Then, last Monday, a chunk of ornamental masonry fell from high off the Belleclare Hotel on West 76th Street, shattering on the pavement below.

On Tuesday, part of a parapet crashed down from a Church of Scientology building on 46th Street and - even more dramatically - two entire walls of a six-storey 60-year-old edifice, part of the Selwyn Theater, collapsed on 46th Street, just a block from where the New Year's Eve celebrations were held the next day. Rescuers could not save the building, but were able to retrieve 30,000 balloons and 20,000 pom-poms stored for the festivities.

"If this had happened at midnight on 31 December a lot of people would have gotten hurt," said the city's Department of Environmental Protection.

The incidents have highlighted shortcomings in the enforcement of a local law passed in 1979 after a student was killed by a stone which fell from a building on Broadway. Owners of New York's 10,000 buildings over six storeys high are supposed to hire engineers or architects to inspect facades above pavements every five years. In two of the recent cases, however, the owners had failed to file reports of such inspections and, although they were due last February, the city had not forced them to do so.

The city, which has just 60 buildings inspectors, has been increasingly transferring responsibility for the checks to the construction industry and the owners themselves.

Bad weather increases the danger: Tuesday's incidents followed a driving rainstorm. Water gets into walls and expands as it freezes in the cold, loosening the masonry. The greatest danger is just before dawn when the cold night-time temperatures begin to lift, thawing the water.

Gaston Silva, New York's Buildings Commissioner, says: "It is not unusual when we get storms that we get a lot of incidents of parapets, parts of balconies, or other parts popping loose."

But many New Yorkers sympathise with shop assistant Rosalyn Cruz, who works close to near where the masonry fell off the Belleclare Hotel. "You can't walk on the street because a car might hit you," she said last week, "and you can't walk on the sidewalk because something might fall on your head."

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