Dozens injured in fire in a large Bronx apartment building

By DAVID PORTER, BOBBY CAINA CALVAN and MICHELLE L. PRICE

NEW YORK (AP) – A faulty space heater triggered a fire that filled a high-rise Bronx apartment building with thick smoke Sunday morning, killing 19 people, including nine children, in New York City’s deadliest fire in three decades.

Captured residents smashed windows to get air and stopped wet towels under doors as the smoke rose from an apartment on the lower floor where the fire started. Survivors said they fled in panic down darkened hallways and stairs, barely able to breathe.

Several limp children were seen getting oxygen after being carried out. Evacuated had faces covered in soot.

Firefighters found victims on each floor, many in cardiac and respiratory arrest, said Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro. Some could not escape because of the amount of smoke, he said.

Some residents said they initially ignored wailing smoke alarms because false alarms were so common in the 120-unit building, built in the early 1970s as affordable housing.

More than five dozen people were injured and 13 were hospitalized in critical condition. Nigro said most of the victims had severe smoke inhalation.

Firefighters continued to rescue even after their air supplies ran dry, Mayor Eric Adams said.

“Their oxygen tanks were empty and they were still pushing through the smoke,” Adams said.

Investigators said the fire, triggered by the electric heater, started in a duplex apartment on the second and third floors of the 19-story building.

The flames did not spread far – only charred one unit and an adjacent hallway. But the door to the apartment and a door to a stairwell had been left open, so the smoke quickly spread throughout the building, Nigro said.

New York City fire codes generally require that apartment doors be spring loaded and closed automatically, but it was not immediately clear whether this building was covered by these rules.

Building resident Sandra Clayton grabbed her dog Mocha and ran for her life when she saw the hallway filled with smoke and heard people screaming, “Get out! Go out!”

Clayton, 61, said she fumbled down a darkened staircase and grabbed Mokka. The smoke was so black she could not see, but she could hear neighbors moaning and crying nearby.

“I just ran down the stairs as much as I could, but people fell on me and screamed,” Clayton said from a hospital where she was being treated for smoke inhalation.

In the riot, her dog slipped out of her grip and was later found dead in the stairwell.

About 200 firefighters rushed to the building on East 181st Street around noon. 11.00

Jose Henriquez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who lives on the 10th floor, said the building’s fire alarms would often go off but would turn out to be false.

“It looks like they went off today, but people were not paying attention,” Henriquez said in Spanish.

He and his family stayed while tickling a wet towel under the door as they realized the smoke in the hallways would overwhelm them if they tried to escape.

Luis Rosa said he also initially thought it was a false alarm. When he opened the door to his apartment on the 13th floor, the smoke was so thick he could not look down the hallway. “So I said, OK, we can not run down the stairs, because if we run down the stairs, we end up being suffocated.”

“The only thing we could do was wait,” he said.

The children who died were 16 years or younger, said Stefan Ringel, a senior adviser to the mayor. Adams said at a news conference that many residents were originally from the West African nation of Gambia. Many survivors were brought to temporary shelter in a nearby school.

The sad, brown apartment building looms over a crossroads between smaller, aging brick buildings on Webster Avenue, one of the Bronx’s main thoroughfares.

Sunday afternoon, all that was visible of the unit where the fire started was a gaping black hole where the windows had been smashed.

“There is no guarantee that there will be a working fire alarm in every apartment or in every common area,” the U.S. rep said. Ritchie Torres, a Democrat representing the area, to the AP. “Most of these buildings have no sprinkler system. And therefore, the housing stock in the Bronx is much more susceptible to destructive fires than most housing stock in the city.”

Nigro and Torres both compared the seriousness of the fire to a fire in 1990 at the Happy Land social club, in which 87 people were killed when a man set fire to the building after arguing with his ex-girlfriend and being thrown out of the Bronx club.

Sunday’s death toll was the highest for a fire in the city since the Happy Land fire, except for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

It was also the deadliest fire in an American apartment building in several years. In 2017, 13 people died in an apartment building, also in the Bronx, according to data from the National Fire Protection Association.

The fire started with a 3-year-old boy playing with stoves and also spreading because the door to an apartment that lacked a closing mechanism had been left open. The fire led to several changes in New York City, including getting the fire department to make fire safety training plans for children and parents

Sunday’s fire happened a few days after 12 people, including eight children, were killed in a house fire in Philadelphia. In 1989, a fire in an apartment in Tennessee killed 16 people.

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Associated Press reporters Michael R. Sisak and Jennifer Peltz in New York and Andrew Selsky in Salem, Oregon, contributed to this report.

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