Mourning for hundreds braved bitter cold in the Bronx Sunday to pay tribute to 15 of the 17 people who died last week in a high-rise fire in the borough.
Many flocked to the Islamic Cultural Center in Concourse Village, with the overflow sorrows wrapped in white tents outside shortly before the funeral was to begin. TV screens were set up in the tents so mourners could watch the event live.
Seventeen people died in the January 9 fire at 333 East 181st St. after an electric space heater broke in a bedroom on a duplex’s lower level, FDNY officials said. The fire was confined to just that duplex and an adjoining hallway, but the smoke billowed through the 19-story building, after opening doors could not close itself, as required by New York City law.
The fire was the deadliest in New York City since 1990.
Sunday morning, funeral attendants dressed in dark-colored winter coats, hats and scarves dressed close together in tight circles around the big screens to watch the service. Some stopped cell phones to livestream the event. The tents were so crowded that a few people peeked in through openings.
Amie Bah, 38, of Harlem, came with her twin sister and mother to remember the victims, whose ages ranged from 2 to 50. Bah said some of her family members live in a building not so far in the same neighborhood. One of the boys who died went to the same school as his niece.
“I’m sorry,” Bah said. “The children who lost their lives. The people who lost their lives. Even if you do not know them, it’s sad. It’s a tragedy.”
Many participants are from Gambia and talked about the collective loss they felt for fire victims who came from the same West African country. Some noticed the comfort they took by standing shoulder to shoulder with others mourning the same loss under the tents and taking heat from each other.
“I am here to show respect for our countrymen,” said Fetou Nyassi of the Bronx, who immigrated to the United States from the Gambia 15 years ago. “This is sad. Destructive. It goes beyond understanding.”
Funerals began Wednesday with a worship service at a mosque in Harlem for two victims, Seydou Toure, 12, and sister Haouwa Mahamadou, 5.
All the victims died from smoke inhalation, according to the city doctor.
The doors that did not close – including to the duplex and another on a 15th staircase – are a central focus of the city’s investigation, Mayor Eric Adams has said.
A person who was informed about FDNY’s investigation has said that the space heater had been on for days and that several space heaters had been in operation in the duplex, where between eight and 12 members of a family lived. The family fled.
Adams has said heat worked in the building, but the space heater was used for additional heating.
Nyassi said she hurried to the building last Sunday after hearing about the fire from a friend. The streets in the area were already fenced.
“We were just standing there. We can do nothing,” she said. “I’m angry. … We’re in 2022. People should not be cold in their houses.”
In 1990, 87 people died at a social club in the Bronx after a man set fire to the building’s stairwell: he was expelled from the club where his ex-girlfriend worked in a locker room.
With Matthew Chayes