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Bronx apartment building fire that killed 12 caused by child playing with stove

A child playing with a stove caused the fire in a New York City apartment building that killed 12 people, including four children, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said the morning after the fast-spreading fire in the Bronx.

Fire commissioner calls Thursday evening blaze 'historic in its magnitude'

An apartment building fire in the Bronx on Thursday evening that has left 12 people dead 'started in a kitchen on the first floor. It started from a young boy, 3½ years old, playing with the burners on the stove,' the fire commissioner said Friday. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

A child playing with a stove caused the fire in a New York City apartment building that killed 12 people, including four children, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said Friday, the morning after the fast-spreading fire in the Bronx.

"We found this fire started in a kitchen on the first floor. It started from a young boy, 3½ years old, playing with the burners on the stove," he said at a news conference.

The boy had a history of fiddling with the stove in his family's first-floor apartment, his mother told officials. He had been left unattended in the kitchen, and started screaming as it filled with smoke and fire, Nigro said.

His mother grabbed him and his younger sibling and ran outside to safety. The apartment door remained open.

"Fire travels up; the stairway acted like a chimney. It took the fire so quickly upstairs that people had very little time to react. They couldn't get back down. Those that tried, a few of them perished."

"Children starting fires is not rare," Nigro said.

He emphasized that young children should not be left unattended, and those fleeing apartment fires should always shut doors behind them once the last person is out.

Broken windows can be seen on the back of the Bronx building where the deadly fire broke out. (Andres Kudacki/Associated Press)

The fire, New York City's deadliest residential fire in more than 25 years, broke out a little before 7 p.m. ET Thursday and spread through every floor of the five-storey Bronx apartment building within a matter of minutes, city officials said, fanned by fresh oxygen each time frightened tenants flung open windows.

Residents tried to scramble down fire escapes and out into the cold.

"There was smoke in the living room, so we went to wake up my brother and then he put me in the fire escape and I came down," said Crisbel Martinez, 10, whose family lives on the fifth floor of the building. "It was scary because I thought I was going to fall over."

Fire Department of New York personnel work on the scene of the fire in the Bronx. (Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images)

Maria Batiz, 56, wasn't as fortunate. Her brother said she died along with her infant granddaughter.

"I don't know what to do, how to feel — I'm just numb," Fernando Batiz told CBC's Steven D'Souza. 

"She loved that kid," he said. "My feeling is that she had that baby cradled in her arms when they passed."

Search for missing brother

Twum Bredu said Friday he was still awaiting news of his 28-year-old brother, Emmanuel Mensah, who had been staying with a family that escaped safely from the fire. No one has been able find Mensah; his family has checked four hospitals.

Bredu said the family's still looking and hoping for word of him.

"That's my prayer," he said.

The New York Police Department's office of public information said the dead included girls aged one, two and seven, and an unidentified male child.

"It is an unspeakable tragedy, and families have been torn apart," New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said late Thursday.

Authorities said firefighters rescued 12 people from the building and four were in the hospital in critical condition. More than 160 firefighters responded to the five-alarm blaze.

Nigro called the fire "historic in its magnitude," because of the number of lives lost. Excluding the Sept. 11 attacks, it was the worst fire in the city since 87 people were killed in an arson at a social club in the Bronx in 1990. 

"In a department that's certainly no stranger to tragedy, we're shocked at this loss," he said on Twitter.

Open building code violations

The building, with 26 apartments, has at least six open building code violations, according to city records. One violation was for a broken smoke detector in an apartment on the first floor that was reported in August. It was not clear if the detector had been fixed or replaced or whether it had played any role in the fire.

Nigro said all the units in the building had fire alarms installed, but investigators were still trying to determine whether all of them were working.

Self-closing doors, which swing shut on their own to keep fires from spreading, were also supposed to have been installed, said city Housing Preservation and Development Department spokesperson Matthew Creegan.

Investigators will look at whether the door to the apartment was defective or if an obstruction prevented it from closing, he said.

While the doors are required in any apartment building with more than three units, they sometimes do not work properly because they get clogged or dirty, New York fire-safety consultant Jim Bullock said.

The building is in the Belmont section of the Bronx, a primarily residential, close-knit neighbourhood known as the Little Italy of the borough, near Fordham University and the Bronx Zoo.

The management company for the building's owner, D&E Equities, said it was talking to city officials and was "shocked and saddened" by the deaths and injuries.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story misidentified a resident of the apartment building as Crisbel Garcia. Her name is in fact Crisbel Martinez.
    Dec 29, 2017 8:08 PM ET

With files from CBC's Steven D'Souza and The Associated Press

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