Nine children were killed, while 63 people were injured by “severe smoke inhalation,” with 32 sent to five borough hospitals in life-threatening condition, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said Sunday in a news conference.
“This is a horrific, horrific, painful moment for the city of New York, and the impact of this fire is going to really bring a level of just pain and despair in our city,” said Mayor Eric Adams. He described those displaced as from a largely Muslim community, with many immigrants from the West African nation of Gambia.
The five-alarm fire began shortly before 11 a.m. ET and first consumed the bedroom, then the entire duplex apartment on the second and third floors of the 19-story building, Nigro said.
“The heat was on in the building. This (the space heater) was being used to supplement the building heat. There were smoke alarms throughout the building. The first call that came in was due to a neighbor hearing the smoke alarm and looking and seeing the smoke and calling,” he said.
When residents left the fiery unit, the apartment door was left open, allowing the smoke and fire to spread, Nigro said. At least one door also was open from the stairwell to an upper floor, he said.
“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,” he 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 the bedroom, in a portable electric heater.”
Daisy Mitchell, a 10th floor resident who had just moved in to the building, was one of those who fled to safety. She told CNN’s Brianna Keilar her husband first smelled smoke and noticed the fire.
“The alarm was going off for a while so I didn’t pay it no mind,” she said. “Then, when he opened the door and I went out there, I passed out — it was devastating, it was like really scary.”
“I went to the stairs, I opened the door, it just blew me back [to] the house,” she added. “If I’d stayed out there for another three seconds, I would have been gone too.”
About 200 members of the FDNY responded to the fire at 333 East 181st Street, the agency said. Units arrived at the scene within three minutes of getting an emergency call, Nigro said. They “found victims on every floor in stairways,” he said, many of them in cardiac and respiratory arrest.
“It was a very difficult job for our members. Their air tanks contained a certain amount of air — they ran out of air, many of our members — and they continued working to try to get as many people out as they could,” he said.
Fire alarms and self-closing doors are focus of investigation
Investigators are examining potential issues with the fire alarms and with self-closing doors designed to contain fire and smoke.
“So, when you don’t know that it’s a fire, like, you know, how would you supposed to know if it’s a fire or if it’s always going off?” said Hunter, adding she got a call from a resident on the third floor warning her of the fire, then a knock on her door telling her and her family to get out.
Reports of smoke alarms frequently malfunctioning will be looked into, Nigro said, adding he couldn’t confirm them.
The building had no fire escapes, but “there are interior stairways,” he said. “So, the residents should know where the stairwells are, and I think some of them could not escape because of the volume of smoke.”
“We have a law here in NYC that requires doors to close automatically,” he said. “We also want to double down on that PSA that I recall as a child… close the doors,” he said.
There have been no major building violations or complaints listed against the building, which contains 120 units, according to city building records. Past minor violations were rectified by the property, and no structural violations were listed.
Built in 1972, the building was federally funded, so may have been built outside the New York City fire code, Nigro said, adding it was unlikely to have been a factor in Sunday’s blaze.
“Certain federal buildings can be built under different standards. But to be perfectly clear, the fire itself — other than getting in the hall because the door was open — never extended anywhere else in the building, so that was not a factor.”
Residents of the apartment building were initially housed at a middle school next door, and longer-term shelter for them would be found, said Christina Farrell, first deputy commissioner of NYC emergency management.
Low-income areas face higher fire risk, official says
The “tragic and terrifying” fire underscores the need for federal investment in affordable housing, said Congressman Ritchie Torres, who represents residents of the apartment building.
“Many of these buildings are old. Not every apartment has a fire alarm. Most of these buildings have no sprinkler system. And so the risk of a fire is much higher in lower-income neighborhoods in the Bronx than it might be elsewhere in the city or in the country,” Torres told MSNBC.
“When we allow our affordable housing developments to be plagued by decades of disinvestment, we are putting lives at risk. These buildings are wide open to catastrophic fires that can cost people their lives, including the lives of children.”
The apartment’s stairway acted “like a chimney,” and the fire rapidly spread through the apartment building, Nigro said at the time. After that fire, the city passed the self-closing door law.
CNN’s Alaa Elassar, Sarah Fortinsky, Elizabeth Joseph, Eric Levenson, Artemis Moshtaghian, Liam Reilly and Laura Studley contributed to this report.
Space heater blamed after 19 die in one of the worst fires in modern New York history