NEW YORK－Nineteen people were killed, including nine children, and dozens injured when a fire started by a malfunctioning space heater spread smoke through a low-income building in New York on Sunday, officials said.
It was the deadliest fire in the city in more than three decades.
“There were a lot of kids crying, ‘Help! Help! Help!'” 38-year-old Dilenny Rodriguez, who escaped with her children, told Agence France-Presse.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams confirmed 19 people had died from the blaze that broke out around 11 am in the imposing 19-floor Twin Parks North West building, which provides affordable housing units and home to a Gambian community. The building in the Bronx borough was constructed in 1972.
Later on Sunday, officials said 32 people had been hospitalized with life-threatening injuries and 63 people were injured in total as smoke drifted through the building on a cold winter morning.
“This is a horrific, horrific, painful moment for the city of New York,” Adams told reporters. “The numbers are horrific.”
The fire itself started from a space heater in an apartment that spanned the second and third floors of the building, and only made it to the hall.
But smoke still spread to every floor of the 120-unit building, likely because the door to the apartment was left open, said Fire Department Commissioner Daniel Nigro to reporters.
“Members found victims on every floor in stairwells and were taking them out in cardiac and respiratory arrest,” Nigro said.
Fire marshals had determined through physical evidence and accounts from residents that the fire started in a portable electric heater in the apartment’s bedroom. Nigro added that the heat had been on in the apartment building and the portable heater had been supplementing that heating.
Second blaze in a week
The catastrophe is likely to stir questions on safety standards in low-income city housing. This was the second major deadly fire in a residential complex in the United States in just one week after 12 people, including eight children, were killed on Wednesday when flames swept through a public housing apartment building in Philadelphia.
The latest inferno was New York City’s deadliest since 1990, when 87 people died in an arson also in the Bronx. The borough was also home to a deadly apartment building fire in 2017 that killed 13 people.
Representative Ritchie Torres, a Democrat whose district includes the New York building, told MSNBC that affordable housing developments such as Twin Parks North West pose safety risks to residents. “When we allow our affordable housing developments to be plagued by decades of disinvestment, we are putting lives at risk,” he said.
The building did not have external fire escapes, and residents were meant to evacuate through interior stairways. “I think some of them could not escape because of the volume of smoke,” Nigro said.
Nearly 200 firefighters helped put out the blaze, and some ran out of oxygen in their tanks but pushed through anyway to rescue people from the building.
“It was definitely devastating. A lot of smoke. Until now, when I clear my throat, all I see is black mucus. It was so serious, I’ve never seen anything like it before,” said Mohamed Trawalley, 49, a resident of the building.
Inside a school acting as an emergency shelter, displaced residents sat at tables, dressed in thick coats with a few belongings huddled around them. Many women wore hijabs and several people were on the phone, including one masked woman wrapped in a Red Cross blanket.
A distraught woman exiting the shelter in heavy rain told Reuters her sister-in-law and child were missing in the fire.