By DAVID PORTER, BOBBY CAINA CALVAN and MICHELLE L. PRICE
NEW YORK (AP) – A malfunctioning space heater ignited a fire that sent a high-rise Bronx apartment building into thick smoke Sunday morning, killing 19 people, including nine children in the incident. New York City’s deadliest fire in three decades.
Trapped residents broke windows to get air and stuffed wet towels under doors as smoke billowed from a downstairs apartment where the fire started. Survivors tell of fleeing in panic through dark, barely breathing corridors.
Many children who limp are given oxygen after they are carried out. The evacuees had their faces covered in soot.
Firefighters found victims on every floor, many of them in cardiac arrest and respiratory arrest, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said. Some could not get out due to the large amount of smoke, he said.
Some residents said they initially ignored smoke alarms because false alarms were so common in the 120-unit building, which was built in the early 1970s as an affordable housing estate.
More than 5 dozen people were injured and 13 were hospitalized in critical condition. Firefighters said most of the victims suffered severe smoke inhalation.
Mayor Eric Adams said firefighters continued to carry out rescues even as their aviation supplies were depleted.
“Their tanks were empty and they were still pushing smoke out,” Adams said.
Investigators say the fire started in a penthouse on the second and third floors of the 19-story building.
The fire did not spread far – only burned a unit and an adjacent corridor. However, the door to the apartment and the door to the stairs were left open, causing smoke to quickly spread throughout the building, Nigro said.
New York City’s fire rules often require apartment doors to be spring-loaded and automatically slam shut, but it’s unclear if the building will follow those rules.
Building resident Sandra Clayton said she hugged her dog Mocha and ran for her life when she saw the smoke-filled hallway and heard people screaming, “Get out! Get out!”
Clayton, 61, said she groped down a dark flight of stairs, clutching Mocha in her arms. The smoke was so black she couldn’t see, but she could hear the wailing of nearby neighbors.
Clayton recalled from a hospital where she was treated for smoke inhalation: “I just ran down the stairs as much as I could but people were all over me and screaming.
During the commotion, her dog slipped from her grasp and was later found dead in the stairs.
About 200 firefighters responded to the building on East 181st Street at around 11am
Jose Henriquez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who lives on the 10th floor, said the building’s fire alarms regularly went off, but turned out to be false.
“It looks like they went out today, but people weren’t paying attention,” Henriquez said in Spanish.
He and his family stayed behind, covered with a wet towel underneath the door, once they realized the smoke in the hall would overpower them if they tried to flee.
Luis Rosa said he also thought it was a false alarm at first. When he opened the door to his 13th-floor apartment, the smoke was so thick he couldn’t see down the hallway. “So I said, OK, we can’t run downstairs because if we run downstairs, we’ll suffocate.”
“All we can do is wait,” he said.
Stefan Ringel, a senior adviser to the mayor, said the children killed were 16 years old or younger. Adams said at a news conference that many of the residents are of West African Gambian descent. Many survivors were taken to temporary shelters in a nearby school.
The drab brown building is tucked away on an intersection of smaller old brick buildings overlooking Webster Avenue, one of the Bronx’s main thoroughfares.
By Sunday afternoon, all that remained visible of the unit where the fire started was a sprawling black hole where windows had been smashed.
“There is no guarantee that there is a working fire alarm in every apartment, or in every common area,” US Representative Ritchie Torres, a Democrat representing the area, told the AP. . “Most of these buildings do not have sprinkler systems. And as a result, the Bronx’s housing supply is much more susceptible to catastrophic fires than much of the housing supply in the city.”
Nigro and Torres both compared the severity of the fire to the 1990 fire at the Happy Land social club, where 87 people were killed when a man set fire to the building after an argument with his ex-girlfriend and kicked out of the Bronx club.
Sunday’s death toll was the highest for a fire in the city since the Happy Land fire, excluding the September 11 terrorist attacks. It was also the deadliest fire at an apartment complex in America for many years. In 2017, 13 people died in an apartment building, also in the Bronx, according to National Fire Protection Association figures.
That fire started when a 3-year-old boy played with the stove and the fire spread because the door of an apartment without a mechanism was opened. It led to a number of changes in New York City, including the fire department creating a plan to educate children and parents about fire safety.
Sunday’s fire comes just days after 12 people, including eight children, were killed in a house fire in Philadelphia. The previous deadliest fire was in 1989 when an apartment building fire in Tennessee claimed the lives of 16 people.
Associated Press reporters Michael R. Sisak and Jennifer Peltz and Andrew Selsky in Salem, Oregon, contributed to this report.
https://www.twincities.com/2022/01/09/bronx-apartment-fire-kills-19-including-9-children/ 19 dead, including 9 children, in NYC apartment fire