Bronx apartment fire tragedy that left 19 dead started with heater, officials say

Sixty-three people were injured by “severe smoke inhalation,” with 32 sent to five Bronx hospitals in life-threatening condition, Nigro said Sunday. Nine children are among the dead.

Nigro said a “malfunctioning electric space heater” was the source of the fire, which began shortly before 11 a.m. in a duplex apartment on the second and third floors of the 19-story building. The heater was in the bedroom of the apartment, and the flames consumed the room and then the entire apartment, he said.

“How the fire started, we don’t know yet — it will be investigated, and I’m certain that the marshals will determine it,” Nigro told reporters Sunday, adding that the blaze was not currently considered suspicious.

At a news conference, Nigro said the door to the apartment did not close when its residents left.

“The smoke spread throughout the building, thus, the tremendous loss of life and other people fighting for their lives right now in hospitals all over the Bronx,” he said. “So we are investigating where everyone was found how the smoke traveled, but certainly the marshals have determined through physical evidence and through firsthand accounts by the residents that this fire started in the bedroom, in a portable electric heater.”

About 200 members of the New York City Fire Department responded to the fire in the building at 333 East 181st Street, the FDNY said.

Units arrived on scene within three minutes of receiving an emergency call, Nigro said.

FDNY members “found victims on every floor in stairways,” he said, many of them in cardiac and respiratory arrest.

Nigro said in addition to the door to the apartment where the fire originated being left open, at least one door was open from the stairwell to one of the upper floors.

“Smoke and heat travel upward, that we know — that’s what happened here,” he said. “It was a very difficult job for our members. Their air tanks contained certain amount of air — they ran out of air — many of our members — and they continued working to try to get as many people out as they could.”

State of the building

Building resident Chanasia Hunter, who lives on the 10th floor of the building, told CNN affiliate WABC it was common for residents to hear fire alarms go off.

“So when you don’t know that it’s a fire, like you know, how would you supposed to know if it’s a fire or if it’s always going off?” she said.

Hunter said she got a call from a resident on the third floor warning her of the fire, and then she got a knock on her door telling her and her family to get out.

Nigro said reports that smoke alarms frequently malfunctioned would be looked into but that he couldn’t confirm them.

He said there were no fire escapes on the building, but “there are interior stairways. So the residents should know where the stairwells are and I think some of them could not escape because of the volume of smoke.”

The residential building, built in 1972, was federally funded so it could have potentially been built outside of the New York City fire code, Nigro said, adding that it was unlikely to have been a factor in the blaze.

“Certain federal buildings can be built under different standards. But to be perfectly clear the fire itself — other than getting in the hall because the door was open — never extended anywhere else in the building, so that was not a factor.”

There have not been any major building violations or complaints listed against the building, which contains 120 units, according to city building records. Past minor violations were rectified by the property and there were no structural violations listed.

Past fires in the Bronx

Rep. Ritchie Torres of New York told MSNBC the fire was “tragic and terrifying” and underscored the need to invest in affordable housing.

Torres, who represents residents of the apartment building, said many affordable housing apartment buildings lack important infrastructure needed to prevent fires like Sunday’s, and he called for a greater investment on a federal level in infrastructure.

“Many of these buildings are old. Not every apartment has a fire alarm. Most of these buildings have no sprinkler system. And so the risk of a fire is much higher in lower-income neighborhoods in the Bronx than it might be elsewhere in the city or in the country,” Torres said.

“When we allow our affordable housing developments to be plagued by decades of disinvestment, we are putting lives at risk. These buildings are wide open to catastrophic fires that can cost people their lives, including the lives of children.”

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge expressed her sympathies for the fire, tweeting: “I send my deepest condolences on the devastating loss of life from today’s fire in the Bronx. HUD stands ready to assist however we can. My thoughts and prayers are with all those who have been impacted by this tragedy.”
The Bronx has been the scene of other deadly fires in recent decades — the most deadly was in 1990, when 87 people died at the Happy Land social club.

In 2007, 10 people — nine of them children — were killed in a fire at a Bronx residence after a space heater cord overheated.

In December 2017, 13 people died when a fire broke out at an apartment block

The fatal fire began when a 3-year-old played with burners on the stove and started a kitchen fire, officials said. When the boy’s mother fled the apartment with the him and his 2-year-old sister, she left the door open.

The apartment’s stairway acted “like a chimney” and the fire rapidly spread through the apartment building, Commissioner Nigro said at the time.

After that fire, New York passed a law making self-closing doors a requirement in buildings with three or more apartments.

Mayor Eric Adams described Sunday’s apartment building fire as one of the worst New York has experienced in modern times.

“This is a horrific, horrific, painful moment for the city of New York, and the impact of this fire is going to really bring a level of just pain and despair in our city,” Adams said.

Emergency personnel work at the scene of the fatal fire on Sunday.

Emergency shelter for residents

The building housed a largely Muslim population, Adams said, with many immigrants from Gambia, a small nation on the west coast of Africa.

The mayor said one priority will be to ensure Islamic funeral and burial rites are respected. Another will be to seek Muslim leaders to connect with residents.

The names of people who request government assistance will not be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Adams added.

Christina Farrell, first deputy commissioner of NYC emergency management, told CNN Sunday that residents who lived in the apartment building were initially being housed at a middle school next door but longer term shelter would be found.

“We work with the Red Cross, we have hotel rooms and have other resources available. And so we will be making sure every family has a safe, warm space to sleep in tonight,” she said. A service center will be set up Monday, Farrell said.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, appearing at a press conference Sunday, said she will establish a compensation fund to help provide the victims of the fire with money for housing, burial costs and other necessities.

“I am horrified by the devastating fire in the Bronx today,” Hochul said on Twitter. “My heart is with the loved ones of all those we’ve tragically lost, all of those impacted and with our heroic FDNY firefighters. The entire State of New York stands with New York City.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also spoke at the news conference and said numerous forms of assistance are being examined on the federal level and will include housing and tax assistance as well as and immigration assistance, “so families can be reunited.”

CNN’s Elizabeth Joseph, Artemis Moshtaghian, Sarah Fortinsky, Eric Levenson, Alaa Elassar and Laura Studley contributed to this report.


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