Worst Fire NYC Has Seen in Three Decades Takes 17 Lives

A tragic fire in a Bronx apartment building took 17 lives, including 8 children. That number is expected to rise as 15 others remain in critical condition, still “fighting for their lives,” according to the NYC fire commissioner Daniel A. Nigro. This tragedy was the worst of it’s kind in terms of death toll since 87 people died in an arson fire at a Bronx nightclub in 1990.

The fire was caused by an electric space heater that caught fire in a duplex apartment on the second and third floors of the building. The residents of the apartment fled, leaving the door open. This caused smoke to spread to all 19 floors of the building, which shocked residents who didn’t take notice of the alarms because they occur frequently in the building. Firefighters found victims on every floor, with the deaths and injuries caused by smoke inhalation, not burns. “It was the smoke that took these lives, not the fire itself,” said Mayor Eric Adams. 

Deputy Chief Farooq Muhammad of the Fire Department’s Bureau of Emergency Medical Services responded to the Bornx Fire, and was tasked with coordinating efforts to take the wounded to hospitals. He said the experience was reminiscent of his work at the 9/11 attacks. “I was performing triage duties on 9/11 after the World Trade Center and had to run for my life,” he said. “This reminds me of that. Just the sheer number of patients, the casualties, and the stress reminds me of that event.”

Battalion Chief Jeffrey Facinelli also responded to the fire, and received dozens of radio calls from firefighters inside the building. “They’re giving me situational awareness; they’re basically painting a picture for me inside of what they have. And they give me detailed information, saying things like, ‘We have two or three people in this apartment on this floor,’ and if some of those people are unconscious, no pulse, not breathing, that they’re doing CPR,” he said. “They’re painting a picture for us outside so that we know how bad the situation is.”

“We’ve stressed this over and over,” said Nigro, “the door to that apartment was left open causing the fire to spread and the smoke to spread.” This crucial yet small act of closing a door to a room allows for the fire and smoke to become contained as it deprives the fire of oxygen.

“There may have been a maintenance issue with this door that is going to be a part of the ongoing investigation,” said Adams. There was also a door to the stairwell on the 15th floor left open; both doors were “not functioning as they should,” according to Nigro.

New York City law requires that apartment doors close automatically. Nigro and Adams said that the apartment building has self-closing doors. Fire Department investigators tested doors in the apartment building and found that most of them worked properly, while the door to the apartment where the fire started along with some others did not close. The building’s maintenance staff fixed a lock on the door where the fire began in July and claim the self-closing mechanism was working at the time. 

The apartment building also was built “under federal guidelines way back when, so it’s not up to New York City fire codes,” according to the fire union president. The building had several rooms converted into duplexes, which contributed to making many spaces difficult for firefighters to reach. Another avoidable factor in the fire was the lack of knowledge regarding improper use of  space heaters, which are known to have a high risk of catching fire when not carefully monitored. Fire officials say the space heater may have been running nonstop for several days. 

Adams says that the city plans to increase awareness efforts to make sure that residents close the door of their apartment if escaping a fire. David Banks, the city’s schools chancellor, said that he asked principals to give fire safety messages in public schools.

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