- Several survivors were in critical condition and authorities warned the death toll could rise.
- A malfunctioning space heater apparently sparked the 5-alarm fire.
NEW YORK – Cleanup crews in white suits cleared debris Monday from the high-rise Bronx apartment building where choking smoke from an accidental blaze a day earlier killed 17 people, including eight children.
Authorities had initially put the death toll at 19. But Mayor Eric Adams, calling the tragedy at the Twin Parks North West complex an “evolving crisis,” updated the numbers at a news conference Monday.
“There was a bit of a double count,” Fire Department of New York Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.
Dozens of people remained hospitalized from the nation’s most deadly apartment fire in almost 40 years. Thirteen survivors were in critical condition, and Nigro warned that the death toll could rise. The dead included children as young as 4, City Council Member Oswald Feliz said.
Adams, who described the blaze as one of the “worst fires in modern times,” ordered flags to remain at half staff until sunset Wednesday.
“This is an unspeakable tragedy,” Adams said. “It is not going to define us. It is going to show our resiliency.”
A malfunctioning space heater sparked the five-alarm fire Sunday in a duplex apartment on the second and third floors of the 19-story building, Nigro said. The apartment’s front door and a door on the 15th floor should have been self-closing, but the doors malfunctioned and stayed fully open, allowing smoke to billow in the stairwells, Nigro said.
Adams told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that “there may have been a maintenance issue” with the apartment’s front door, which will be investigated. Nigro said the door was not obstructed.
The building’s owner, Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC, released a statement saying all doors in the building are self-closing, including stairwell and apartment doors, as required by code. There are no open violations or complaints related to self-closing doors at the property, the company said.
In July, maintenance workers repaired the lock on the entry door to the unit where the fire began. At that time, the self-closing mechanism was checked in accordance with standard operating procedure, the company said, adding that no concerns about the door had been reported to property management since then.
Adams said he will stress that schools need to teach fire safety – particularly closing doors – to the city’s students.
“We can save lives by closing the doors,” Adams said.
The White House issued a statement saying President Joe Biden spoke with Adams “to express his heartfelt condolences and offer support.”
Surrounding blocks were closed off Monday, the streets lined with police and fire vehicles. A small group of local clergy held a vigil in front of the building Monday.
“They lost something, but Lord God we know you can give them more,” the Rev. Kevin McCall prayed.
U.S. RESIDENTIAL FIRES HAVE DECLINED: Bronx blaze is a reminder how dangerous they can be.
Resident: ‘I was scared to death’
The building remained unoccupied Monday, but authorities said some residents could be allowed to move back in this week. Some returned Monday, hoping to retrieve items from their homes.
Karen Dejesus, 54, said she lives a few doors down from the apartment where the fire started. When the upstairs of her apartment began filling with smoke, she started grabbing towels to try to protect her belongings.
“Next thing I heard was the firemen breaking my door,” said Dejesus, who climbed out her window on a fire ladder to escape the blaze and smoke. “I was scared to death. I was trying to hold on to the firefighters. That’s a scary situation, but you have to get out to save your life.”
Dejesus was back at the building Monday morning trying to get information about when she might be able to get back inside. She was allowed to grab a few things Sunday evening and said the third floor was “like a war zone.”
“It was pitch-black,” she said. “There’s water everywhere.”
Dejesus has lived in the building for 18 years. She said the fire alarms went off so regularly that it was like “second nature to us.” But when she started to see the smoke and heard people yelling for help, she realized the emergency was real.
“I can see the flames. I can see the smoke coming into my apartment. You’re being trapped somewhere,” she said as she described the scene.
Dejesus said her doors didn’t close automatically, and she didn’t know whether any of the building’s doors did.
“I just thank God that I’m here and my family is OK,” she said.
A preliminary investigation found that the fire did not affect the structural integrity of the building, said Andrew Rudansky, a spokesman for the city Department of Buildings. Forensic engineers from the agency were at the building Monday, Rudansky said.
Space heater sparked five-alarm fire
Nigro said the fire “started in a malfunctioning electric space heater” in a bedroom of the duplex apartment. Fire officials say the space heater may have been running uninterrupted for several days even though the building’s heat was working in the apartment.
The apartment’s open door allowed smoke to quickly spread throughout the building, Nigro said. Trapped residents broke windows for air and stuffed wet towels under doors to stave off the smoke as it rose through the building.
Nigro said 63 people were injured by “severe smoke inhalation” and 32 were admitted to five area hospitals. The flames were confined to two floors, but smoke darkened stairwells with a thick, unbreathable fog.
The Twin Parks complex was built in 1973 as part of a project to bring modern, affordable housing to the Bronx. The building is equipped with smoke alarms, but several residents said they ignored the warning because the alarms went off so often in the 120-unit building. Large, new apartment buildings in the city are required to have sprinkler systems, but those rules don’t apply to thousands of the city’s older buildings.
“To my knowledge, there was no sprinkler (systems),” said Andrew Ansbro, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association. He said the building had a fire 35 years ago.
Deadliest fire since 1990’s Happy Land social club blaze
The fire was the city’s deadliest since 1990, when 87 people died at the Happy Land social club, also in the Bronx. That fire was ruled an arson, and the man convicted of igniting it, Julio González, was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
On the day of the Happy Land fire, González had a fierce argument with his girlfriend, who worked at the club. Authorities said González, who died in prison, also blocked the club’s only exit.
The borough was also home to an apartment building fire in 2017 that killed 13 people. That fire spread throughout the building when the door to an apartment was left open. In 2018, the City Council passed ordinances requiring self-closing doors and child safety knobs in apartment buildings, hotels, nursing homes and other multiple-dwelling units that open into corridors or stairways. Owners were required to install self-closing doors as of July 2021.
Adams credited residents of the building for helping one another to safety, showing “who we are as New Yorkers.” Nigro said firefighters risked their lives as they rushed through the smoke, finding residents on every floor, many of them in cardiac and respiratory arrest.
“Their oxygen tanks were empty and they still pushed through the smoke,” Adams said.
Housing help for the displaced
The New York City Housing Department said the American Red Cross has offered emergency relocation help to all occupants of the building where the fire occurred. To this point the Red Cross has placed 74 people from 21 households in hotels and offered stays of up to two weeks for those who need it.
Besides those who have found temporarily lodging through the Red Cross, 148 people from 41 households have been placed in hotels by the owner of the damaged building, where orders to vacate will be issued for 27 apartments.
Building’s owners ‘devastated,’ promise to cooperate with inquiry
The building’s owner issued a statement saying it was cooperating with the investigation.
“We are devastated by the unimaginable loss of life caused by this profound tragedy,” the statement read. “We are cooperating fully with the Fire Department and other city agencies as they investigate its cause, and we are doing all we can to assist our residents. Our thoughts are with the families and friends of those who lost their lives or were injured, and we are here to support them as we recover from this horrific fire.”
Bacon reported from Arlington, Va.
Contributing: Grace Hauck, Kevin McCoy, Jordan Mendoza, Cady Stanton and Jorge L. Ortiz, USA TODAY; The Associated Press