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New York fire that killed 19 likely began with space heater, fire chief says

Victims were found ‘on every floor, in stairways,’ said Daniel Nigro, the city’s fire commissioner

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)

NEW YORK — A fire at a New York apartment complex killed 19 people on Sunday, many of them children, in what officials called one of the most devastating blazes in city history.

More than 60 people were injured as smoke engulfed the 19-story building in the Bronx, sending dozens to the hospital in critical condition as about 200 firefighters responded, authorities said. Families of the victims huddled in the halls of a nearby school, crying out as they got news of each death.

Nine of those who died were 16 or younger, according to an official with the mayor’s office. The Bronx fire was the second blaze in less than week to underscore the vulnerabilities of those living in multifamily housing, echoing the disaster at a crowded Philadelphia rowhouse where a fire killed a dozen people, including eight children.

“We are indeed a city in shock,” said New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), adding that she held a mother who had lost her whole family. She vowed to the victims: “We will not forget you, we will not abandon you.”

The fire appeared to originate from a space heater in a second- and third-floor duplex just before 11 a.m., authorities said at a Sunday evening news conference. Smoke billowed up through the 120-unit complex, aided by an open door, they said.

Firefighters arrived within three minutes of a call about the blaze on East 181st Street and were met with flames in the hallway, New York City Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said. People suffering from smoke inhalation were found “on every floor, in stairways,” Nigro said, and were taken away in cardiac and respiratory arrest.

Officials said 32 people in life-threatening condition were transported to hospitals. Stefan Ringel, a senior adviser to Mayor Eric Adams (D), said Sunday afternoon that 19 of those people had died, leaving 13 people in critical condition. The official death toll had not changed Sunday evening.

Leaders said many residents of the building, Twin Parks North West, were immigrants from the West African nation of Gambia. They were “striving to climb that ladder up, and their lives [were] snuffed out,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D) of New York. “It’s awful.”

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)

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The blaze was the deadliest in New York City since the 1990 Happy Land social club disaster, which killed 87 people. Nearly two-thirds of those victims were men, including many Hispanic immigrants who worked low-wage jobs and were the sole breadwinners for their families.

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), who represents the Bronx, said that the country has a “crisis” in housing maintenance and that many of the buildings in his area lack basic fire safety equipment, such as fire alarms in every apartment and stairwells with self-closing doors. City housing code requires self-closing doors to slow the spread of fire and smoke from one unit to the rest of an apartment.

“There is often a disconnect between the requirements of the law and the actual living conditions of these buildings,” Torres said.

Nigro said that residents left open a door to the duplex that caught fire, and that “it did not close by itself.” The building’s ownership group said Twin Parks North West is outfitted with self-closing doors in compliance with the city’s housing laws and has no open violations for self-closing doors.

Even before Sunday’s death toll was announced, local officials said the fire would be one of the most horrific in local memory.

Jade Gonzalez, 14, was awakened by her grandmother, who saw smoke come through the door of their third-floor apartment. They got out after firefighters brought a ladder and broke a window, she said.

Mariama Kebbeh said she was with her husband and two adult children on the 18th floor when she smelled the smoke. The family and a neighbor gathered in Kebbeh’s bedroom, she said, trying to protect themselves with a wet towel at the bottom of the door.

Brittany Agostini was cooking breakfast for her children in an adjacent building Sunday when her 7-year-old alerted her to the fire.

She said she watched a family with young children leave the burning building, escaping without shoes or coats on what was a chilly day. The smoke and flames were so close to her home, she said, that she feared for her safety.

“I’ve never seen flames so big,” Agostini said. “It was just pouring out of the windows.”

Officials said the apartment had interior stairways rather than fire escapes, which two survivors said they had long worried about. Saidatu Hammed, a resident of the 12th floor, expressed frustration with building management and said the smoke made it difficult to breathe as she and her family ran down floor after floor.

She said she did not have time to grab warm clothes for herself, her 8-year-old daughter or her 5-year-old son.

“The smoke is going through the room, inside the room, everywhere,” she said.

Displaced residents will be sent to hotels or given other accommodations, said Christina Farrell, first deputy commissioner of the New York City Emergency Management Department.

The fire devastated an affordable housing development that sits in the Bronx’s Tremont neighborhood, a mostly residential part of the borough with a diverse population — about 70 percent of residents are Hispanic, more than a quarter are Black and about 43 percent were born outside the United States, according to city data.

Adams said the fire struck a large Muslim community with many immigrants from Gambia.

“We want to make sure that we’re sensitive to the cultural needs,” the mayor said.

Schumer promised whatever federal help is possible, including immigration assistance so families who traveled from overseas can be “united.”

Leaders tried to reassure people Sunday that their information will not be shared with immigration enforcement if they sought aid.

Hochul promised to help rebuild the lives of those “who came all the way from Africa, Gambia, in search of a better life right here in this great borough, the borough of the Bronx.”

“They’re part of our family,” she said.

Bronx Park Phase III Preservation, the joint venture that owns the building, said in a statement that its owners are “devastated by the unimaginable loss of life caused by this profound tragedy.”

“We are cooperating fully with the fire department and other city agencies as they investigate its cause, and we are doing all we can to assist our residents,” the statement said. “Our thoughts are with the families and friends of those who lost their lives or were injured, and we are here to support them as we recover from this horrific fire.”

Camber Property Group, a New York City affordable housing developer with several properties in the Bronx, is among the three firms that own the building. The New York Times reported that the company’s co-founder Rick Gropper focused on housing issues for Adams’ transition team before he took office Jan. 1.

The building was vacated Sunday night, said Oswald Feliz, a member of the New York City Council.

“It’s quite possible higher floors might not need severe repairs, but we’ll see what the FDNY thinks is safe,” he said, adding that there was no timeline yet on when residents can return.

The blaze consumed the duplex apartment where it began, as well as part of a hallway, Nigro said. He said that the building had smoke alarms throughout and that a neighbor called authorities after hearing an alarm.

First responders pushed through smoke even as their oxygen tanks were empty, Adams said.

The Bronx apartment blaze is a tragic example of the dangers of smoke inhalation, a deadly and often overlooked risk in building fires, said Jim Bullock, a retired New York City Fire Department deputy chief.

In building fires, smoke typically kills more people than flames, because burning plastic creates a toxic exhaust that can lead to cyanide poisoning, said Bullock, now the president of NY Fire Consultants.

As authorities began to investigate how the tragedy happened and how another one could be prevented, dozens of families gathered at a nearby school with a designated “grieving corner.”

One group of women broke down after learning that a 20-year-old family member had died — their wails momentarily overshadowing the clamor in the rest of the room. A few minutes earlier, they had lined up to say evening prayers.

A man said he did not know where his cousin was, but his sister in the same building was safe. He was waiting.

Knowles reported from San Jose. Thebault and Beachum reported from Washington. Christine Armario in Miami contributed to this report.

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