NEW YORK (AP/PIX11) — Sorrow welled across a Bronx community Monday, a day after a fire and choking smoke engulfed a high-rise apartment building and killed 17 people, nine of them children. Hospitals worked to save the lives of multiple survivors gravely injured by smoke in the blaze.
Dozens of people were hospitalized, and as many as 13 were in critical condition after Sunday’s blaze, already the city’s deadliest in three decades. As survivors recalled the frantic moments of their escape, bereft family and friends of those who perished coped with shock, disbelief, and pain.
The flames damaged only a small part of the building, but smoke escaped through the apartment’s open door and billowed through stairwells and halls, trapping many people in their apartments and incapacitating others as they fled. Investigators determined that a malfunctioning electric space heater, plugged in to give extra heat on a cold morning, started the fire in the 19-story building on East 181st Street.
Firefighters found victims on every floor, many in cardiac and respiratory arrest, said Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro. Some could not escape because of the volume of smoke, he said. Multiple limp children were seen receiving oxygen after being carried out. Evacuees had faces covered in soot.
Many who lived at the apartment complex formed a close-knit community, and soon word was spreading about who might have died amidst the smoke and fire.
Firefighters continued making rescues even after their air supplies ran out, New York City Mayor Eric Adams said. “Their oxygen tanks were empty and they still pushed through the smoke,” he described. On Monday morning, Adams said that several people were in critical condition. “We pray to God that they’ll be able to pull through,” he said on CNN.
Nigro said an investigation was underway to determine how the fire spread and whether anything could have been done to prevent or contain the blaze. The building is equipped with smoke alarms, but several residents said they initially ignored them because alarms were so common in the 120-unit building.
Large, new apartment buildings in the city are required to have sprinkler systems and interior doors that swing shut automatically to contain smoke and deprive fires of oxygen, but those rules don’t apply to thousands of the city’s older buildings. Smoke transformed stairwells—the only method of flight in a building too tall for fire escapes—into dark, ash-choked horrors.
The fire was New York City’s deadliest since 1990, when 87 people died in an arson at the Happy Land social club, also in the Bronx. The borough was also home to a deadly apartment building fire in 2017 that killed 13 people and a 2007 fire, also started by a space heater, that killed nine.
Rancid black smoke filled hallways, rising from floor to floor. People tripped and fell as they rushed down darkened stairwells, unable to see. Panic turned to sorrow, as residents who escaped learned of neighbors who did not.
Prayers were planned Monday for the victims as friends, neighbors, and strangers sought to console the grieving. “’I’m so sorry for the people that lost their children and their mothers because we all are one. And for this to happen, it’s horrible,” said Tysena Jacobs, a building resident.
Mahamadou Toure tried to find the words outside a hospital emergency room hours after the Sunday fire took the life of his 5-year-old daughter and her teenage brother. “Right now my heart is very—” Toure tried telling the Daily News, before composing himself.
“It’s OK. I give it to God,” he continued. His wife screamed the name of a neighbor, an unconscious teenager being wheeled away on a gurney.
Hassane Badr awaited word of the fate of a 25-year-old cousin. He already knew that two of his siblings had died, while his 12-year-old brother was being treated at the hospital for smoke inhalation. He told the New York Times that 11 members of his family, including his parents and siblings, lived in the building.
“I’m thinking like I’m dreaming, this is not true. You hear people crying, my goodness,” Badr told The Times. “To be honest, I’m not believing it right now.”
Ousman Tunkara was frantically trying to reach his sister after hearing from a relative that his young niece may have died. “She was a baby,” Tunkara told the Daily News. “I’m sad—I’m sad.”
“We all got out. My friend, her husband didn’t make it out. So I’m just thanking God that my family made it,” said one resident, Winter Thomas, who escaped from the ninth floor with her mother, stepfather, and siblings.
On the way down, they sidestepped unresponsive bodies laying on the ground. “It don’t make no sense. These is kids I grew up with, kids we went to school with,” Thomas said.
Building resident Sandra Clayton grabbed her dog Mocha and ran for her life when she saw the hallway fill with smoke and heard people screaming, “Get out! Get out!” Clayton, 61, said she groped her way down a darkened stairway, clutching Mocha.
The smoke was so black she couldn’t see, but she could hear neighbors wailing and crying nearby. “I just ran down the steps as much as I could but people was falling all over me, screaming,” Clayton recounted from a hospital where she was treated for smoke inhalation.
She dashed for the stairs, scooping up her dog Mocha, a 2-year-old Maltese Shih Tzu. The smoke smelled of putrid chemicals, she said. It was already thick and black when she found the stairwell. She fumbled with her cellphone flashlight, but was too much in shock.
Unable to see, she groped her way down the stairs, soon crowded with other tenants. She described panicked wails and crying that echoed up and down the stairs. She fell three times, sometimes trampled by others trying to escape in the darkness. At one point, she let go of her dog as she braced herself for a fall.
“I tried feeling for her, but there was so much smoke,” she said, her voice growing emotional. “I had to save my own life.”
After minutes that seemed to last forever, she found her way out of the building. She gasped for air, wondering in tears about what happened to Mocha back on the stairs. “It was so horrific,” she said of the ordeal. “I was so scared.”
Mocha didn’t make it. The dog was later found suffocated by the smoke.
Jose Henriquez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who lives on the 10th floor, said the building’s fire alarms would frequently go off, but would turn out to be false. “It seems like today, they went off, but the people didn’t pay attention,” Henriquez said in Spanish.
He was taking care of two young grandkids and a niece with his wife. He and his family stayed, wedging a wet towel beneath the door once they realized the smoke in the halls would overpower them if they tried to flee. He cracked open a window, letting in the wintry air. In video he shot, the kids can be heard expressing alarm at the smoke, looking out the 10th-floor window as fire trucks rushed to the scene.
Eventually, the family squeezed past ascending firefighters, using dampened COVID-19 masks for protection against the lingering smoke, careful not to slip in pools of water. On the way down, they passed a dog lying dead on the sooty staircase.
Luis Rosa, also on the 13th floor, had awakened to the fire alarm, also annoyed that it was probably another false alarm. But when a notification popped up on his phone, he and his mother began to worry.
By the time he opened the door of his apartment, the smoke was so thick he couldn’t see down the hallway. “So I said, ‘OK, we can’t run down the stairs, because if we run down the stairs, we’re going to end up suffocating.’” He looked out the window trying to figure out his options.
“All we could do was wait,” he said. About 45 minutes later—perhaps longer, he said—Rosa heard pounding on the door. It was a firefighter giving the all-clear.
As evening fell over the scene, Nicole Anderson counted her blessings. She suspects the fire was already burning when she and her family rode down the elevator to their car. After driving just a few minutes, the family saw firetrucks barreling down the street, sirens, and lights blaring.
“I didn’t think much of it,” said Anderson, 43, who grew up in the building. Soon a neighbor was calling saying their building was on fire. She turned back but could only get as close as a few blocks from her home. She walked the rest of the way. “It was dark black smoke,” she said, coming from a lower floor.
Neighborhood residents, Johanna Bellevue among them, donated clothes and other necessities to survivors. “Baby clothes, baby food, books, jackets, sneakers, whatever I can just given out whenever I can,” Bellevue said. “I can’t do much but what I have.”
FDNY Lt. James McCarthy spoke with NEWS10’s sister station in New York City Monday morning about the response from firefighters.:
Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson spoke PIX11 about how the city was helping victims and displaced families:
The Associated Press contributed to this report.