A massive fire tore through an apartment building in New York City on Sunday morning, killing at least 17 people ― eight of whom were children ― and injuring dozens more, the city’s mayor said.
Officials initially said 19 people had died in the incident, but that figure dropped after the Office of the Medical Examiner updated Mayor Eric Adams on Monday.
The five-alarm fire was described as one of the city’s worst in decades, with people requiring rescue from every stairwell inside the 19-story building while suffering from cardiac and respiratory arrest, New York City Fire Department Commissioner Daniel Nigro told reporters at the scene. There are approximately 120 apartments in the building.
City officials had earlier reported that more than 63 people were injured in the blaze. Of that total, 32 suffered life-threatening injuries, nine were seriously injured and 22 had non-life-threatening injuries. The majority of the injuries were due to smoke inhalation, said Nigro.
“The last time we had a loss of life that may be this horrific was the Happy Land Fire. That was over 30 years ago, also here in the Bronx,” he said. That 1990 blaze, which was determined to have been an act of arson, killed 87 people.
Nigro confirmed in a press conference later on Sunday that the fire began as a result of a malfunctioning space heater in a bedroom of a unit that spanned two floors in the building, based on the evidence and witness statements. The door to the apartment where the fire started was left open, allowing the blaze to spread throughout the building and upward to other floors.
“This is going to be one of the worst fires that we have witnessed during modern times here in the city of New York,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said, adding that several firefighters continued working to get as many people out of the building as possible despite running out of oxygen in their air tanks.
Adams added the importance of having faith-based leaders to support residents and victims’ families, specifying that the building had a large Muslim population.
“Sheikh Musa is here and knows many of the residents that came from Gambia, and we want to make sure that we’re sensitive to the cultural needs. The [Office of Emergency Management] is going to coordinate to make sure that we respect the burial rights of the Muslim community, as well as others.
The mayor added that residents’ names will not be turned over to immigration authorities should they reach out for assistance. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who attended the evening press conference, also expressed support for immigrants who experienced the blaze.
“At the federal level, we’ll do whatever we can. There is housing assistance, there is tax assistance, and maybe most important in this instance immigration assistance so families can be united because many of these families have come from overseas and need to be here,” the senator from Brooklyn said.
“New Yorkers are united in standing by when there’s a tragedy – we come together, we don’t care about ideology. We don’t care about race, creed, color, religion,” he continued. “We come together, we embrace on another. And we say we are for helping New Yorkers who need help. That’s who we’ve been for the history of our city. And on this awful night, that doesn’t change.”
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul also appeared at the evening press conference, saying that she will establish a victims’ compensation fund to help residents find new housing and afford burial costs, among other things.
“It’s impossible to go into that room where scores of families were in such grief, were in pain. To see it in a mother’s eyes as I held her, who lost her entire family. It’s hard to fathom what they’re going through,” Hochul said.
“I went table to table, helped children make their ramen noodles and eat their pizza, and let them know one thing: We will not forget you, we will not abandon you. We are here for you.”
Evacuated residents, speaking with the New York Post, recalled their dramatic escape while seeing bodies being carried out of the building in blankets.
“We saw moms fainting. They saw their kids dying,” a 13-year-old, whose aunt was identified as living on the 15th floor, told the Post. “We saw a bunch of bodies coming out. People from my childhood were dying.”
“It was traumatizing,” a ninth-floor resident told the paper. “We went onto the sixth floor and a neighbor let us in and we stayed there until the firemen took us out.”
The city opened the Angelo Patri Middle School for individuals displaced by the fire to take shelter for the next several nights and receive resources. The OEM commissioner said the Red Cross is helping provide assistance, and that the city is registering everyone that needs housing. Residents will be going into hotels for an extended period “while we work it out and it’s safe for people to go back into the building.”
If people ultimately cannot go back to their apartments, the commissioner said, then the agency will work with the city’s housing department and the state to get people the necessary long-term housing.
The apartment unit where the fire began sat on the second and third floors, with the blaze traveling into the hallway due to the door being left open.
“Unfortunately when the residents’ door was left open, it did not close by itself. 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,” Nigro 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 a bedroom, in a portable electric heater.”
The fire commissioner confirmed that the heat in the building was working and that the space heater was being used to supplement the already existing heat. The smoke alarms were triggered throughout the building, with the first call that came in being due to a neighbor hearing the alarm and then seeing the smoke.
At the evening press conference, a reporter asked Nigro if he was able to confirm reports that the building had a faulty smoke alarm system, and that the frequent malfunctioning may be why many residents didn’t feel the urgency to evacuate. The commissioner said he could not confirm the reports, but that investigators are looking into the issue.
As of 2018, the New York City fire code includes that all apartment buildings include self-closing doors by 2021, a safety measure that would help contain a fire within the unit and keep smoke and flames away from other residents. The law was passed after the 2017 Bronx fire that killed 13.
Adams said that part of the investigation by fire marshals would determine whether the building followed that law.
The building, created in 1972, was federally funded – which the commissioner said could mean it may have been “potentially” built outside of the city’s fire code. According to the 2018 law, however, federal buildings are not excluded from the fire code.
Nigro also said that the building did not have any fire escapes, but rather interior stairwells.
Last week, a fire at a duplex home in Philadelphia killed 12 people, including seven children. The four smoke alarms in the building were believed to not be working at the time of the Jan. 5 fire.