The Culkin Family Fire Of 1998 That Left Four People Dead

"It was awful. I couldn't see. I wouldn't be shocked if people did lose their lives because the smoke was thick and acrid," said a 72-year-old June Lehti shortly after a massive fire engulfed the middle section of her New York City apartment building on December 23, 1998. Residents poured into the hallways and down the stairwells to escape the putrid clouds of smoke swallowing the air as flames crept upward into the ascending units. Tragically, four individuals perished in the ensuing chaos (via AP News). 

According to The New York Times, the four dead were identified as Wanda Chappell (39), Lillian Lowder (28), Constance Hurley (77), and Maitiu Breathnach (33). Their bodies were discovered in a stairwell between the 27th and 29th floors. The two units where the blaze originated — 19D and 19E — belonged to Patricia Bentrup, mother of "Home Alone" actor Macaulay Culkin

The fire started in the Culkin homestead

As to what started the fire or who was home, no official cause was made public immediately following the incident. "I can only tell you they're all safe. The family is very sad about the tragedy,″ said Paul Bloch, publicist for the Culkin family at the time. While the young actor was not living at the residence in 1998, he often returned to visit his mother/siblings and was regularly seen by various occupants of the building (per AP News). 

One resident, Steve Young, claimed to have seen the family standing in the building's lobby in the midst of it all, though he didn't specify which members of the Culkin troupe were present. Shortly after 10 a.m. on December 23, some 200 New York City firefighters were deployed to the scene of the calamity, four of whom suffered various injuries while combating it. 

A short circuit started the fire

An investigation ensued immediately after the scene was cleared for experts to enter, and they ultimately determined that a heater had short-circuited within Patricia Brentrup's unit and initiated the blaze. Brentrup later revealed that she was in fact at home at the time of the fire, and after fleeing her apartment, she immediately called 911. In her frenzied departure, she reportedly left the front door agape, allowing for a blowtorch effect that happens when a gust of wind creates a burst of flames from the fire's source (via ABC News). 

Despite instructions from firefighters to remain in their units, residents throughout the building started funneling into the hallways and stairwells to escape. "If people had stayed in their apartments, we might have come away without serious injuries,″ said mayor Rudy Giuliani in a statement following the tragedy. Sadly, the excess of smoke would claim the lives of four individuals who were found sprawled upon the floor of the corridors above Patricia Brentrup's unit (per AP News).

The Culkins were sued following the tragedy

In 2000, Macaulay Culkin, various members of his family, and South Park Tower's managers were sued by Travelers Property Casualty (an insurance branch) for damages resulting from the fire. They demanded $113,000 in restitution on behalf of insurance claims put forth by five of their clients living at South Park Tower, according to The New York Times. Macaulay Culkin was living with his wife at the time, Rachel Miner, in a separate residence when the fire took place.

Additionally, Patricia Brentrup, as well as the South Park Tower's owners, stood trial against several other lawsuits seeking hundreds of millions of dollars for her alleged role in the catastrophe. "Abundant evidence supports a finding that Park South was aware of Bentrup's long-standing practice of propping open the fire-rated doors to her apartments," said Justice Paula Omansky of the New York State Supreme Court (via AP News).