The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Don’t call the deadly Bronx apartment fire an accident. It’s a failure of government.

Chaplain Robert Rice of the New York Police Department reacts during a vigil outside the apartment where the fatal fire took place. (Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post)

Jessie Singer is the author of the forthcoming book, “There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster — Who Profits and Who Pays the Price.”

An apartment fire in the Bronx this weekend killed at least 17 people, eight of them children. That makes the disaster the worst residential fire in New York City in decades, and devastatingly, more are expected to die.

While investigations are ongoing, it appears likely officials will classify the fire an “accident.” By that, they mean the event was not arson. But there’s a lot wrong with that word and its connotations of chance and unpredictability. If we take a closer look at who was killed in the blaze, and who is killed in “accidental” fires across the United States, it clearly not an accident at all. This is a failure of government officials and corporate landlords to ensure safe housing, especially for people of color.

Many of the dead in the Bronx incident were immigrants from the West African nation of Gambia. The residents of the building are largely Black and Latino. This reflects a national pattern: In the United States, between 1999 and 2019, Black people were killed in “accidental” residential fires at more than twice the rate of White people.

New York City Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro offered a simple explanation for the fire: It began with a malfunctioning portable electric space heater and spread because a resident left the door to their apartment open. If we accept this explanation, the only possible conclusion is that this was a failure of personal responsibility.

But how could the apartment door have been left open if New York City law requires that apartment buildings be equipped with self-closing doors? Why did a resident need a space heater if the law requires that apartment buildings be kept at a comfortable temperature in winter?

No one in the wealthiest nation in the world should be dying in a fire in 2022. Fires are not quantum physics; we know what causes fires, how they spread and what makes any given fire more or less deadly. Seventeen people in the Bronx died in a fire for the same reason that most Americans die in a house fire in 2022: Because the only housing accessible to them is housing that is unsafe. Even following a thread as specific as space heaters proves this point: The use of supplemental heat mechanisms, such as space heaters, in New York City is directly correlated with neighborhood poverty.

Proof that “accidents” are far more insidious than simple, individual mistakes is evident when examining who suffers from them — especially when policy and infrastructure are major factors in survival. Indigenous people, for example, are more than twice as likely as White people to be killed by drivers while walking. In 2020 people in West Virginia, where poverty rates are high, died by accident at nearly twice the rate of people over the state line in Virginia, where poverty rates are much lower. In fact, across the board, states with the highest rates of accidental death are also some of the poorest.

Like fires, accidental drownings, traffic accidents and gun accidents all occur disproportionately along racial lines. The same is true for accidental death by “unintentional natural and environmental causes” — a broad category that includes rat bites, starvation and freezing to death, among other horrors. (Freezing to death is, of course, a cause of death that could be prevented by a space heater.) These so-called “accidents,” so often attributed to a personal failure, are inseparable from systemic inequity — racial, economic and geographic.

We could look at these figures and tell a story of personal responsibility — about how Black people, or Indigenous people, or West Virginians, or people living in poverty are somehow more accident-prone than the rest of us. That conclusion is not only racist and classist and a bit useless, but it also leaves in place the systemically unequal conditions that allowed these deaths to happen in the first place, setting the stage for the same predictable, preventable “accidents” to happen again.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a professor at The City University of New York, explains racism as “the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death.” We can accept that fact and begin to examine the ways that racism and inequality, built into the very infrastructure of our country — our homes, our roads, our workplaces — makes some people vulnerable to premature death. Or we can blame the person with the space heater and wait for the same accidents to happen again.