Updated 7:58 p.m. A seven-alarm fire engulfed a warehouse crammed with official documents near the waterfront in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on Saturday morning, sending plumes of brown, acrid smoke into the air that were visible as far away as New Jersey.
By late afternoon, 10 hours after it began at 6:20 a.m., the fire was still burning, with flames consuming court files, hospital records and social service documents, and firefighters battling brutal cold and wind in addition to the blaze itself, Chief of Department James E. Leonard said.
“They’re extremely, extremely exposed,” he said. “The cold can be painful, it’s going to hurt you.”
No firefighters were injured, Chief Leonard said, but one neighborhood resident was treated at the scene for slight smoke inhalation.
As the day unfolded, more than 200 firefighters converged on the CitiStorage building at 5 North 11th Street, near Kent Avenue, fighting the fire on land and from fire boats.
The weather conditions almost could not have been worse for firefighters, Chief Leonard said. Stiff winds fed the flames, while ice formed around fire hydrants and pump trucks.
Chief Leonard declined to estimate when the fire might be extinguished, but said that fire crews were likely to be on the scene for weeks.
“This is going to smolder for quite some time,” he said.
Those that said they had records stored in the warehouse, which occupies nearly half a square block, included the state court system, the city Administration for Children’s Services, the city Health and Hospitals Corporation, and members of the Greater New York Hospital Association.
The child welfare agency said it had been in the process of removing its files from the building. “We are currently working to assess the number and type of files that may have been impacted by this massive fire,” the department said in a statement.
A spokesman for the state court system said that it, too, had been in the process of transferring its records out of the building. The city hospital agency said in a statement that it had electronic versions of patient records stored in the warehouse and added, “We do not anticipate this will affect our operations.”
Along the wind-whipped waterfront, slips of charred paper swirled through the air, and people grabbed handfuls of soggy documents strewn near the East River shoreline. One man picked up a scrap of paper documenting a urine sample. “Patient given specimen cup,” it read.
Firefighters were first called to a small fire at the warehouse around 4:30 a.m., and — with the help of the building’s sprinkler system — doused it in 45 minutes, Chief Leonard said.
They were called back a little more than an hour later for a second fire that was so big by the time they arrived that they could not enter the building, he said.
It was unclear if the two fires were related. The causes of both were being investigated.
The storage space, which opened in 1994, is a vestige of Williamsburg’s once-industrial waterfront, bordered to the south by parks built in tandem with high-rise condominium buildings.
Well into the late afternoon, two Fire Department boats were blasting water at the fire. At the same time, firefighters perched on the ends of ladders on trucks aimed hoses at the building, only to have the frigid wind turn most of the water to rainbow-colored spray.
Passers-by held scarves over their mouths to filter out the pungent smoke. On Sunday night, the city’s Department of Health recommended that neighborhood residents remain indoors with their windows closed, to limit their smoke exposure.
“I can’t believe it’s not out by now,” said Mark Engel, 41, a lawyer from Long Island, at about 3 p.m. He added, “You don’t know what you’re breathing. I’m afraid to have my kids here.”