The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Federal safety regulators investigating role of space heater in Bronx fire

“If it’s a defective product, we will take action,” CPSC chairman says

Firefighters watch a news conference at a multilevel apartment building following a fire, in the Bronx on Jan. 10, 2022. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
2 min

Federal safety regulators have opened an investigation into whether a defective space heater was to blame for a fire in the Bronx on Sunday that killed at least 17 people.

Authorities in New York said the fire started with a malfunctioning space heater in the bedroom of an apartment complex; they initially said 19 people had died, then revised that number Monday after finding a duplicate count. Smoke from the fire streamed through the building, helped along by an open door, authorities said.

While many details are still unknown, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is looking into the potential role of a defective product in the fire and offering assistance to New York investigators, said CPSC Chairman Alex Hoehn-Saric.

“If it’s a defective product, we will take action,” Hoehn-Saric said.

A CPSC investigator traveled to New York on Monday, the agency said.

Smoke from Bronx fire may have spread because of open door, New York mayor says

The CPSC is responsible for regulating safety in 15,000 everyday products and has the power to order dangerous products pulled off the market and penalize manufacturers.

The fire risk from space heaters — even when in good working order — has worried safety regulators for decades, leading to tougher standards and a public education campaign.

Residents and witnesses described the Jan. 9 apartment fire, started by a faulty space heater, that killed 17 in the Bronx. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Each year, portable space heaters are blamed for an estimated 1,700 residential fires and 80 deaths, according to a CPSC report published last summer.

An automatic tip-over switch has been required on portable electric and kerosene heaters since at least 2002, along with additional protection around the heating coils to prevent fires.

Public safety campaigns have emphasized the importance of keeping space heaters three feet from flammable materials, such as drapes and bedding. The use of extension cords is also discouraged.

Another potential danger is overheating people in a room. The CPSC tied the deaths of four children and one adult to hyperthermia caused by room heaters, according to a 2019 report. In one case, a one-year-old boy died in his crib after a portable heater was left running in his room, heating it to 97 degrees.

Voluntary industry standards limit the maximum temperature for space heaters to 117 degrees — which is designed to prevent nearby items from catching fire.

A malfunctioning space heater started a fire that killed 19 people, including nine children, in an apartment building in the Bronx on Jan. 9. (Video: Reuters)

Some space heaters have faced product recalls.

In 2014, Vornado recalled one of its electric space heaters after 29 reports of the product overheating and melting. That same year, Sunbeam recalled a ceramic heater model after 132 reports of the units not working or overheating.