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Officials blame space heater for Bronx fire, say smoke may have spread because of open door

New York City officials said they were looking into a "maintenance issue" that may have prevented a door from swinging shut during an apartment fire. (Video: Reuters)

NEW YORK — A day after a fire killed 17 people in the Bronx, city officials blamed a space heater for starting the blaze and an open door that had allowed smoke to spread throughout the 120-apartment building.

More than 60 people were injured as smoke billowed through the 19-story building Sunday. New York Mayor Eric Adams (D) said at a Monday news conference that 17 people had been killed in the fire — nine adults and eight children — revising the toll reported as 19 the day before. Dozens of residents were displaced and in need of emergency housing after fleeing the flames, and many were mourning their family members and friends who did not survive.

“We’re going to get through this moment, and we’re going to get through it together,” the mayor said. “And this tragedy is not going to define us. It is going to show our resiliency.”

Authorities are “certain” the fire started with a “faulty electrical heater,” New York City Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said Monday, adding that it was a portable heater. Smoke then streamed through the building, aided by a door that was left open and did not close by itself, authorities have said. The city’s housing code requires self-closing doors to slow the spread of fire and smoke from one unit to the rest of an apartment building.

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Nigro explained the revised death toll, saying that as patients were taken to seven hospitals, there was a duplicate count.

“It’s a bit of good news that the number isn’t 19 but 17,” he said. “But don’t forget there are many people fighting for their lives in the hospital … so this number could unfortunately increase again.”

Local officials said all the displaced residents had housing overnight, either in hotels or with friends or family. Emergency management officials said some of the apartment units could be reoccupied in the coming days. The American Red Cross said it had provided emergency housing to 22 families, including 56 adults and 25 children.

In the hallway of one of those hotels Monday, a commotion brought elderly women, young volunteers and toddlers rushing out to see what was happening. Screams pierced the corridor from a room where a woman was having trouble breathing.

“She bled a lot,” said Nabou Diawara, a woman from Mali who was at the hotel to visit friends and family. She said the distressed woman was pregnant and might have lost her baby.

Health problems were common among others who made it out of the building. Mahamed Keita was dealing with a headache after escaping the 16th floor, where he had lived for a year. His apartment is in a family friend’s name, so he doesn’t know how it will affect how much assistance he gets.

“I’m worried if they will take care of me,” he said.

He hoped his cable bill, which is under his name, would qualify him for assistance.

Adams, the mayor, said he had received a call from President Biden, who “has made it clear that whatever we need, the White House is going to be there for us.”

On the Senate floor in Washington, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) pledged aid for the displaced and affected.

“At the federal level, we will do whatever we can — housing assistance, disaster assistance and help for all immigrant families” affected by the fire, he said.

The city is collecting donations for displaced people through the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, which will help provide emergency relief supplies for victims and families. Another group, Global Empowerment Mission, said it was working with charity BStrong to gather donations and deliver aid to the affected.

Michael Brady, executive director of the Third Avenue Business Improvement District, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for equitable economic development in the Bronx, was organizing a donation drive to support victims of the fire at nearby Monroe College.

“As soon as news of the fire broke, the Bronx business community really went to work in making sure people have basic necessities like food and water, just to give a sense of normalcy to victims during this tragedy,” Brady said.

A steady stream of donors filed in and out of Monroe College, delivering food, water, toiletries and warm clothes.

Siaka Chitou walked into the temporary emergency response center, looking to donate money, but the center was not equipped to handle cash.

“I only have a small amount to donate, maybe 20 or 40 dollars. But I will go to the website and donate using my debit card,” Chitou said.

While residents looked for help in their recovery, authorities detailed how the deadly fire tore through their building.

The fire itself was contained to the hallway outside the apartment where it began, but the “smoke traveled throughout the building and the smoke is what caused the deaths and serious injuries,” Nigro said during Monday’s briefing.

The fire commissioner also said that, especially in high-rise buildings, staying in place during fires can be safer than trying to “venture out and try to get down the stairs and sometimes into a much more dangerous situation.”

The open door had also made the stairwell dangerous. Nigro noted that the building’s doors “are self-closing,” but that the door to the apartment with the fire was not “functioning as it should.”

“If you’re in a building, an apartment building that has self-closing doors, make sure it works, and if it doesn’t, please point that out,” he said.

Viral Amin, a vice president of Washington-based architecture and engineering firm SmithGroup, told The Post that internal stairways are accepted practice for fire safety.

Internal stairways have many codes and regulations built into their design before a building is occupied, Amin said, and all doors serving stairways should be fire-rated and self-closing to help contain fire.

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)

Renee Howard, who lives on the 18th floor, said residents had grown accustomed to frequent fire alarms without evacuating the premises.

“They go off a lot,” she said.

Howard said she has relatives who were on the third floor, where the blaze started. “They were tripping over bodies that were there in the stairwell,” she said.

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Adams stressed that he did not want to further traumatize the residents who were “simply trying to escape a very dangerous and very frightening experience.”

“All of us make mistakes during crises,” he said. “So yes, we want to encourage — we’re going to double down on closing the door … but our hearts go out to this family. They’re going through trauma as well.”

He and other leaders urged the importance of fire safety and closing doors to slow the spread of flames.

“Muscle memory is everything, and if we can drill that in, we can save lives by closing the doors, not only in the city but across the entire globe,” Adams said. “This painful moment can turn into a purposeful moment as we send the right message of something as simple as closing the door.”

Speaking about the apparent start of the fire, Adams reminded people in interviews earlier Monday that space heaters are “operated every day safely in this city, and we want people to continue to follow the instructions that come with the space heaters so they can be used correctly.”

Space heaters have worried federal regulators for years. Portable and fixed-position space heaters caused 2 in 5 home-heating-equipment fires in recent years, along with the majority of deaths, according to a National Fire Protection Association report in 2021.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission said portable space heaters were responsible for an estimated 1,700 residential fires and 80 deaths each year from 2016 to 2018, according to a 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.

Safety campaigns have reminded people to keep space heaters three feet from walls or potential ignition sources. A public service announcement shared by the mayor’s office Monday said “space heaters need space” and to keep them at least three feet from materials such as bedding and curtains.

Back at the Bronx hotel, Diawara, the Malian woman, was in an elevator Monday afternoon when one of the women with her started wailing. She comforted the woman, who was mourning a family member.

The woman was one of many in their temporary lodging sporadically breaking down as grief hit them. Some wept silently, while others hugged and cried, their grief here to stay.

One resident of the apartment building’s 12th floor, Haja Kamara, was eager to return to her apartment and send her children back to school, because being away from their studies is “not going to be good for them.”

Her 14-year-old daughter was trying to take classes on a cellphone Monday, as instructed by her teacher, but her heart was heavy.

“She was crying because she lost her friends; one of the kids was like a big sister to her,” Kamara said.

“That building is a family building. A united building, a blessing building,” she said. “Thank God for that building.”

As the Monday sun set on the Bronx, the building towered over the streets teeming with volunteers and emergency personnel. Broken windows stared down at the street, some of them revealing glimpses of the lives lived: bed posts, curtains. Some windows were dark, too burned for light to enter.

Todd Frankel and Reis Thebault in Washington and Hannah Knowles in San Jose contributed to this report.