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Fire at former Remington plant highlights danger of abandoned buildings

Craig LeMoult

Two buildings at what was once the largest munitions plant in the country caught fire Tuesday in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  It’s the latest fire in a city full of vulnerable, abandoned buildings.

John Cardoba lives across the street and several houses down from the old abandoned Remington Arms factory in Bridgeport.

“You could see the fire starting from the top of the building, and then you start seeing just this black and white smoke just as far as you can see in the sky,” Cardoba said.

He says he’s hoping the fire means they’ll finally tear down the crumbling factory buildings.

“Because this is a home for a lot of homeless people, drug addicts," he said. "And this is not a very safe place for them to be at.”

Credit Craig LeMoult
Homes across the street from the former Remington Arms factory burned on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014.

Assistant fire Chief John Mazza says this fire isn’t all that unusual.

“Multiple fires at this location," Mazza said.  "This is probably my fifth or sixth one here myself over the course of the years.”

And it wasn’t just the factory on fire this time. The old Remington office next door caught fire, and firefighters battled flames at residential row houses across the street where Jose Diaz and his family rented an apartment.

“The ash start flying away and burn all the houses where we live,” said Diaz.

Credit Craig LeMoult
The Bridgeport building where Jose Diaz and his family rent an apartment burned on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014.

Diaz says he doesn’t understand why, with a history of fires, the building hasn’t already been knocked down.

“You know, why they don’t do nothing about it? I got four kids," Diaz said. "Now we homeless.”

The Remington buildings are owned by a private development company that’s been locked in a legal dispute with the city for years over back taxes. The company’s owner didn’t return WSHU’s call for comment. The city was awarded the rights to a parcel of the former Remington land in 2011 by a federal court dealing with the tax issue, and is now using state money to draw up plans to build a second Bridgeport train station there. The developers are under a court order to clean up contamination at the remaining buildings, and there’s a plan to demolish them. The fire may speed that process up.

While the Remington buildings are among Bridgeport’s biggest abandoned buildings, there are many more throughout the city. Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch has said 12 percent of city land is vacant because it’s polluted. David Kooris, of Bridgeport’s office of planning and economic development, says the fire shows how important their efforts to fix that problem are.

“We’ll take this as a call to action to ensure that we move forward faster," said Kooris, "because we can’t afford to jeopardize the safety of our fire force and our neighborhoods by letting these buildings remain dormant.”

Kooris says there are plans and private investors in place to redevelop a half a dozen abandoned properties around the city.

Craig produces sound-rich features and breaking news coverage for WGBH News in Boston. His features have run nationally on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on PRI's The World and Marketplace. Craig has won a number of national and regional awards for his reporting, including two national Edward R. Murrow awards in 2015, the national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi award feature reporting in 2011, first place awards in 2012 and 2009 from the national Public Radio News Directors Inc. and second place in 2007 from the national Society of Environmental Journalists. Craig is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Tufts University.
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