Popcorn Fires

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By Ishita Singh

Firefighters attended to a fire at the UA Court Street Stadium 12. Photo Courtesy of Sarah Portlock
Firefighters attended to a fire at the UA Court Street Stadium 12. Photo: Portlock/Brooklyn Ink

When an overheated popcorn machine caused smoke to billow at the UA Court Street Stadium 12 on September 13, the theater’s employees should have known what to do. After all, a similar, and more serious, fire had occurred at the Brooklyn Heights movie theater just six weeks prior, on August 4.

But according to locals who were at the theater the night of the fire, no one at the theater did anything. The fires generated a big discussion on the Brooklyn Heights Blog, where patrons of the UA Cinema that night posted criticism of the theater for its lack of response. Neil Wehrle, who was there with his wife that night to watch an 8:10 showing of “District 9,” said that approximately half an hour into the movie, the lights came on in the theater. “No employees came into the space, and there was no announcement from the theater.” Wehrle added that he could not hear if any fire trucks or emergency response crews were outside the theater either.

Someone in the hall finally went outside to see what was going on, Wehrle said. “He came back a minute later,” Wehrle continued, “and said there was a fire and we should leave. Still no employees or announcements.”

After the “District 9” viewers evacuated the theater, Wehrle said he saw fire trucks and police outside. Even then, no one from the theater had told him what happened. The theater, which has 12 halls, was considerably packed on that Saturday night and large groups of people huddled outside on the street, Wehrle said.

The theater’s lack of response frustrated Wehrle. Though no one was injured in the September fire—emergency medical staff treated seven people on-site during the first fire in August—a fire or smoke situation in a crowded theater could of course be dangerous.

Maria Alomar, the manager at the theater, declined to comment about the fires. Richard Grover, director of marketing and communications for the Regal Entertainment Group, which owns UA Cinema, responded in an email. “We take the safety of our guests and employees very seriously,” he said. “Popper fires are rare events in our business; however, on occasion they do occur for both mechanical reasons and human error.”

The fire department said that they arrived at the scene promptly and took control of the situation. “The alarm system activated as it should have, and we came investigated it and that was that,” Fire Department spokesperson Jim Long said.

Jose Costa, also of the FDNY’s Office of Public Information, said that a routine preliminary investigation after the fire, to determine its cause. In both the August and the recent fires, he said, the cause was determined to be an overheated popcorn machine.

Long said that these fires are not common. Employees at the Paragon popcorn machine manufacturing warehouse, which produces movie theater-sized popcorn machines, were also surprised to hear that a popcorn machine could catch fire or smoke. Customer service representative Lori Adams said that she had no idea that this type of situation could occur. “I have never heard of one of them catching fire in the year that I’ve been here,” Adams said.

The owner’s manuals to various popular movie theater popcorn machines warn that improper wiring of the machine may lead to the malfunctioning of parts in the machine, but do not warn against fire or smoke. Fire department spokesperson Long said that though these fires are not at all common, he was unsurprised by its cause. “The machine is an appliance, and like any appliance they can be compromised to the point where there can be a fire condition or a smoke condition,” Long said. “This was not a great issue. This was a minor incident.”

Long also said that the fire department recommended that the theater bring in a technician to look at the machine, especially in light of the first fire. But he admitted that the fire department did not check back in with the theater to make sure that a professional had examined the machines and the way they are set up to ensure that a third fire does not occur.

UA Court Street Stadium 12, which is owned by Forest City, real estate mogul Bruce Ratner’s corporation, has had previous violations issued, mostly for elevator regulation issues, but none recently. A complaint was filed on September 28 against the theater, claiming that the theater had improper exit signs, but the department checked that day and determined that all signs were in place.

The theater did not say what policies it has put in place to prevent a third fire, or if it has implemented new emergency procedures if a third fire does occur.

And Neil Wehrle said that even though he received a compensatory coupon from UA Cinema for a movie, he has not been back to the theater since the fire.

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