9 children among 19 killed in New York City apartment fire
'Unprecedented' blaze was caused by a faulty space heater, officials say
New York City's deadliest fire in more than three decades, killing 19 people including nine children on Sunday at a Bronx apartment building, was caused by a faulty space heater, officials said.
Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said the blaze "started in a malfunctioning electric space heater" in an apartment unit spanning the second and third floors of the 19-storey building. The door of the apartment was left open, allowing smoke to quickly spread throughout the building, he said.
Some residents, trapped in their apartments, broke windows for air and stuffed wet towels along the bottom of their doors. One man rescued by firefighters said he'd become numb to fire alarms because of frequent false alarms.
Some residents "could not escape because of the volume of smoke," Nigro said.
Stefan Ringel, a senior adviser to Mayor Eric Adams, said the children killed were 16 years old or younger. Many of the building's residents were originally from the West African nation of Gambia, Adams said, and there was a large Muslim community. The imposing Twin Parks North West building provided affordable housing units.
Thirteen people remained hospitalized in critical condition, Ringel said. In all, more than 60 people were hurt. Most of the victims had severe smoke inhalation, Nigro said.
Adams called the toll "horrific." Firefighters "found victims on every floor and were taking them out in cardiac and respiratory arrest," Nigro said, calling it "unprecedented."
Roughly 200 firefighters responded to the building on East 181st Street at about 11 a.m. Sunday. Initial reports said the fire was on the third floor of the building, with flames blowing out the windows.
News photographers at the scene captured images of firefighters entering the upper floors of the burning building on a ladder, multiple limp children being given oxygen after being carried from the building and evacuees with their faces covered in soot.
'I couldn't believe what I was seeing'
Building resident Luis Rosa said he was awakened Sunday by a fire alarm, but he dismissed it at first, thinking it was one of the building's periodic false alarms.
But when a notification popped up on his phone, he and his mother began to worry. By then, smoke began wafting into his 13th-floor apartment and he heard sirens in the distance.
He opened the front door, but the smoke had become too thick for an escape, he said.
"Once I opened the door, I couldn't even see that far down the hallway," Rosa told The Associated Press. "So I said, OK, we can't run down the stairs because if we run down the stairs, we're going to end up suffocating.
"All we could do was wait," he said.
Another resident, Vernessa Cunningham, said she raced home from church after getting an alert on her cellphone that the building was on fire.
"I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I was in shock," Cunningham, 60, said from a nearby school, where some residents gathered. "I could see my apartment. The windows were all busted out. And I could see flames coming from the back of the building."
The 120-unit building, one of multiple buildings in the Twin Parks North West complex, was built in 1973 as part of a project to build modern, affordable housing throughout the Bronx.
The drab brown building looms over an intersection of smaller, aging 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 gaping black hole where the windows had been blown out. Apartments as high as the 12th floor also had broken windows. The intersection was choked with police and fire vehicles, and onlookers were still snapping cellphone pictures of the structure as darkness fell.
"There's no guarantee that there's a working fire alarm in every apartment, or in every common area," U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres, a Democrat who represents the area, told the AP. "Most of these buildings have no sprinkler system. And so the housing stock of the Bronx is much more susceptible to devastating fires than most of the housing stock in the city."
Nigro and Torres both compared the fire's severity to a 1990 blaze at the Happy Land social club, where 87 people were killed when a man set fire to the building after getting into an argument with his former girlfriend and being thrown out of the Bronx club.
We've lost 19 of our neighbors today. It's a tragedy beyond measure. Join me in praying for those we lost, especially the 9 innocent young lives that were cut short. <a href="https://t.co/YWQyBLyLK8">https://t.co/YWQyBLyLK8</a>—@NYCMayor
Sunday's death toll was the highest for a fire in the city since the Happy Land fire. It was also the deadliest fire at a U.S. residential apartment building since 2017, when 13 people died in an apartment building, also in the Bronx, according to data from the National Fire Protection Association.
That fire started with a three-year-old boy playing with stove burners and led to several law changes in New York City, including having the fire department create a plan for educating children and parents on fire safety and requiring certain residential buildings to install self-closing doors.
Sunday's fire occurred just days after 12 people, including eight children, were killed in a house fire in Philadelphia. The deadliest fire prior to that was in 1989, when a Tennessee apartment building fire claimed the lives of 16 people.
With files from Reuters