19 killed in New York City’s deadliest fire in decades
By Ashley Southall, Grace Ashford and Chelsia Rose Marcius
NEW YORK — Nineteen people, including nine children, were killed Sunday (9) when an apartment fire started by a malfunctioning space heater sent smoke billowing through a Bronx high-rise, officials said, in the deadliest fire New York City had seen in more than three decades.
An additional 44 people were injured, 13 of them critically, after the occupants of the third-floor apartment where the fire started fled without closing the door behind them, Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro said at a news conference at the scene.
“Smoke spread throughout the building, thus the tremendous loss of life and other people fighting for their lives,” he said.
The smoke from the fire spread to the top of the 19-story building, darkening hallways and stairwells and shocking residents who had heard the fire alarms but did not immediately react because they had grown accustomed to frequent alarms in the building. Firefighters found victims on every floor and worked to rescue them even as their own oxygen tanks ran low, Nigro said.
Dana Campbell was summoned home by her four children when smoke began seeping into their apartment. She arrived as they leapt out of a third-floor window onto a makeshift landing pad, and she was relieved to see they were not harmed.
“You can be here tomorrow with broken legs,” she said. “You can’t be here tomorrow with smoke inhalation.”
The fire’s toll was the worst in the city since 87 people died in an intentionally set fire at a Bronx nightclub in 1990, and it was an early test for the city’s new mayor, Eric Adams. “The numbers are horrific,” Adams said at the first of two news conferences at the site.
He vowed that the city would provide support for the victims, many of whom are Muslim immigrants from the West African nation of Gambia.
“We’re all feeling this, and we’re going to be here for this community to help them navigate through this,” he said later, when he returned to the site.
Thirty people remained in the hospital Sunday evening, Adams said. He urged all of the injured and displaced victims to seek help and assured those who may be in the country without permission that their information would not be passed along to federal immigration authorities.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, who spoke at the second news conference, said that she would include funding to assist victims with the cost of housing and burials in her budget proposal next week. She described holding a mother who had lost her entire family in the fire.
“Tonight is a night of tragedy and pain, and tomorrow we begin to rebuild,” she said.
A city official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the fire was still under investigation, said fire marshals believe the space heater had been running for several days uninterrupted. The residents were using the heater to supplement the building’s heat, which was on, officials said.
Apartment doors left open during fires have featured in some of the city’s worst blazes, including a Bronx fire in 2017 that left 13 people dead. The fire was started by a young boy playing with the stove in his family’s first-floor apartment and quickly tore through the building.
The building where Sunday’s deadly fire occurred is in Fordham Heights in the West Bronx. Built in 1972, it has no fire escapes, like most modern high-rises, and residents must rely on the stairwells in the event of an emergency.
The building, like the surrounding neighbourhood, is home to working-class families of African American, African and Hispanic descent, some of whom use federal Section 8 vouchers to help pay the rent. Residents described the building as a melting pot of races, religions and languages. Several said that the sound of the fire alarm was so common that people learned to ignore it.
Campbell, who lives on the third floor, said that the fire alarms in the building go off five or six times a day. When they do, she said, “I roll my eyes.”
The tower is owned by three investors — LIHC Investment Group, Belveron Partners and Camber Property Group — that purchased it with seven other rent-regulated buildings in the borough for $166 million in early 2020. One of Camber’s co-founders, Rick Gropper, is a housing adviser to Adams.
A spokesperson for the building’s owners said the smoke alarms were sometimes tripped by people smoking in the stairwells. But she said they were unaware of any problems with the devices and that the alarms had sounded properly during Sunday’s fire.
“We are devastated by the unimaginable loss of life caused by this profound tragedy,” the property owners said in a statement.
Officials said the fire was the deadliest since the fire at the Happy Land nightclub in 1990 in the Bronx, located not far from the site of Sunday’s fire. The club, which operated illegally, had no sprinklers, and several exits were blocked off with roll-down security shutters.
The Happy Land fire was set by a jilted lover whose former girlfriend worked at the club. He was sentenced to life in prison and died while serving his sentence in 2016.
The fire on Sunday came just days after a fire in a crowded rowhouse in Philadelphia killed a dozen people, including eight children. Investigators are looking into the possibility that the fire was caused by a child playing with a lighter near a Christmas tree, according to a warrant application that was filed in state court.
The sheer size of the Bronx building all but guaranteed that many more lives would be in danger. The building contains about 120 units ranging from studios to four-bedroom apartments.
Building inspectors remained late Sunday at the fire scene, where they determined the building was stable and allowed some residents to stay.
Those displaced by the fire were being provided hotel rooms through the American Red Cross until they could return to their apartments or find permanent housing, officials said.
For residents of the building, the fire interrupted routine Sunday activities — showers, breakfast, coffee and sleep — with the threat of death.
Ahouss Balima, 20, and his family were sleeping in their apartment on the ninth floor when he was awakened by the cries of someone begging for help. After he roused his three sisters and parents, they began racing downstairs but were stopped by firefighters on the sixth floor who told them their escape route was too dangerous, he said.
The family then ran toward a room in another apartment where others were gathered and they could see light streaming in from a window. But the smoke was dark and choking, and they began to struggle to breathe and to see. One sister cried, and his mother screamed for help.
They were eventually rescued by firefighters, but one of his sisters was taken to a hospital in critical condition, vomiting from the smoke.
“It really breaks my heart,” Balima said.
At Jacobi Medical Centre a few miles away, Ibrahim Seece, 48, said he came to the hospital to show support for the tight-knit Gambian community that lived in the building.
“If a fire like this happens, everybody has sympathy,” Seece said. “If God did it, we appreciate that because God is powerful.”
Hassane Badr, 28, said his brother and sister died in the fire. He was searching for another brother Sunday night.
“We don’t know where he is,” Badr said. “We don’t have any idea.”
A few feet away, a man sobbed and sat on the ground as he told a group of reporters that he lost two children to the blaze.
“I’m sorry,” he told television cameras as he shook a white plastic bag filled with belongings. “I cannot talk.”
-New York Times