According to fire officials, Sunday's fire started in the 19-story Bronx building. Officials believe it was a malfunctioning electric heater. Although the fire only damaged a small portion of the building's structure, smoke was seen pouring through the apartment's door, and turning stairwells into dark, ashy death traps. In a tower that was too high for fire escapes, the only way to escape was through stairs.
Daniel Nigro, Fire Commissioner, stated that the front door of the apartment and the door on the 15th floor should be self-closing to reduce smoke spread. However, the doors remained open. It wasn't clear whether the doors had failed mechanically or manually. Nigro stated that the apartment door was unobstructed.
Officials said that heavy smoke prevented some residents from fleeing and rendered others incapacitated as they attempted to flee. The firefighters carried out the rescues of limp children, gave them oxygen, and continued to make rescues until their air supply ran out.
Glenn Corbett is a John Jay College fire science professor in New York City. He believes that closed doors are crucial for containing smoke and fire, particularly in buildings without automatic sprinkler systems.
Corbett stated that it was quite remarkable that one door could cause so many deaths, but that is the truth of the matter. Corbett stated that the one door was crucial in allowing the fire and smoke to spread vertically throughout the building.
Numerous people were taken to hospital, with some in critical condition. At a news conference held near the scene on Monday, Mayor Eric Adams described it as an "unspeakable tragedy".
Adams stated, "This tragedy will not define us." It will show our resilience."
Adams said that the death toll was two lower than it had been in an initial report on Sunday. Nigro stated that patients were taken to seven hospitals, and there was "a bit of an error in the count".
Oswald Feliz, a City Council member, said that the dead included children as young at 4 years of age.
Nigro stated that an investigation was in progress to determine how the fire spread and what could have been done to stop or contain it.
Officials from the fire department stated that the space heater was running for a prolonged time before the fire started. Frank Dwyer, a spokesperson for the fire department, said that it is still being investigated as to why it malfunctioned. Dwyer stated that the fire spread quickly to furniture and bedding nearby.
Nigro stated that the heat was already on in the building prior to the fire, and that the space heater was being used as a supplement.
Stefan Beauvogui, a husband and father who lived in the building for seven years, stated that cold was a constant problem in their fourth-floor apartment. Beauvogui stated that he had three space heaters in the winter, one for each bedroom and the other for the sitting room. Beauvogui said that the heating system meant to heat his apartment was not working properly. He had complained about it, but it hadn't been fixed.
New apartment buildings must have sprinkler systems, and interior doors that swing open automatically to keep out smoke and oxygen. However, these rules don't apply to older buildings.
Although the building had smoke alarms and self-closing doors, many residents initially ignored them because they were common in the 120-unit building.
Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC is the owner of the building. It said that it cooperated fully with the city and fire departments and was working to help residents.
The statement stated that "We are devastated at the unimaginable loss in life caused by this deep tragedy."
Kelly Magee spokeswoman for the owner group. She said that maintenance staff fixed the lock on the front of the apartment where the fire started in July and that they also checked that the self-closing door worked properly. Magee stated that no issues were found with the door thereafter.
According to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development's database, inspectors in New York City issued violations for self-closing doors that were found on five apartments and one opening to a staircase. The violations date back more than a dozen years. All violations were rectified according to the records.
Magee stated that residents smoking in stairwells occasionally triggered the fire alarms. Property managers were working with Magee to resolve the issue. Magee stated that the alarms worked properly on Sunday.
She explained that the tower had to have sprinklers in its laundry room and trash compactor because of its concrete ceilings and floors.
Camber Property Group was one of the three companies that bought the building as part of the $166 million purchase of eight affordable housing units in the borough. Rick Gropper was one of Camber's founders and served as an advisor to Adams on housing. In the last few elections, he contributed to 12 politicians, including $400 to Adams’ campaign last year.
New York City has been slow in requiring sprinklers in older apartments. After 9/11, laws were passed to require them in high-rise office buildings. However, recent years have seen a bill to require sprinklers in residential buildings.
A city lawmaker in 2018 proposed that residential buildings 40 feet tall or higher be equipped with automatic fire sprinklers by 2029. However, the measure was never approved and the lawmaker has since resigned.
Ronald Siarnicki (executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation) said that a sprinkler system activated by heat inside the apartment could have saved lives.
Siarnicki stated that "most likely it would extinguish that fire or at the very least hold it in check and not produce the amount of toxic fumes." Siarnicki also said that firefighter associations have been pushing for stricter sprinkler requirements since years.
Many families are able to call this building home, many of them originally from Gambia, West Africa.
Karen Dejesus, a resident, said that she was used hearing the fire alarm sound.
"It wasn't until I saw the smoke coming through the door that I realized it was a fire. I started to hear people screaming, 'Help! Help! She said, "Help!"
Dejesus was living in her apartment on the second floor with her 3-year-old granddaughter and her son. She immediately called her family and ran to grab towels to place under her door. The 56-year-old resident noticed smoke coming down the stairs and so she called her family to get towels.
She said, "It was so frightening." It's just the fact that you're trapped in a burning building and don't know how to escape. It's impossible to predict when firefighters will arrive to save you.
Firefighters helped the three of them out of their window and up a ladder to safety. Dejesus held on to her rescuer as she fell.
This fire was New York City’s most deadly since 1990 when 87 people were killed in an arson attack at Happy Land, also in Bronx. The fire that erupted on Sunday came just days after twelve people, including eight children were killed in a Philadelphia house fire.