NEW YORK (AP) — Doctors raced Monday to save the lives of people who were knocked out or trapped in their apartments by a fire that sent smoke billowing through a New York City high-rise. Nineteen people, including nine children, died in the blaze.
Dozens of people were hospitalized, including several in critical condition, after Sunday’s fire in the Bronx, which was already the city’s deadliest in three decades. Mayor Eric Adams told CNN that the death toll could rise.
“We pray to God that they’ll be able to pull through,” he said.
Investigators determined that a malfunctioning electric space heater, plugged in to give extra heat on a cold morning, started the fire in the 19-story building.
The flames damaged only a small part of the building, but smoke poured through the apartment’s open door and turned stairwells — the only method of escape in a building too tall for fire escapes — into dark, ash-choked horrors.
Adams said the building had self-closing doors and that investigators were looking into whether a door malfunctioned.
“There may have been a maintenance issue with this door. And that is going to be part of the … ongoing investigation,” Adams said on “Good Morning America.”
Some people could not escape because of the smoke, said Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro. Others became incapacitated as they tried to get out. Firefighters found victims on every floor, many in cardiac and respiratory arrest, Nigro said.
Limp children were seen being given oxygen after they were carried out. Some who fled had faces covered in soot.
Firefighters continued making rescues even after their air supplies ran out, Adams said.
“Their oxygen tanks were empty, and they still pushed through the smoke,” he said.
An investigation was underway to determine how the fire spread and whether anything could have been done to prevent or contain the blaze, Nigro said.
Large, new apartment buildings are required to have sprinkler systems and interior doors that swing shut automatically to contain smoke and deprive fires of oxygen, but those rules do not apply to thousands of the city’s older buildings.
The building was equipped with smoke alarms, but several residents said they initially ignored them because alarms were so common in the 120-unit building.
Building resident Sandra Clayton grabbed her dog Mocha and ran for her life when she saw the hallway fill with smoke and heard people screaming, “Get out! Get out!”
Clayton, 61, said she groped her way down a darkened stairway, clutching Mocha. The smoke was so black she couldn’t see, but she could hear neighbors wailing and crying nearby.
“I just ran down the steps as much as I could, but people was falling all over me, screaming,” Clayton recounted from a hospital where she was treated for smoke inhalation.
In the commotion, her dog slipped from her grasp. Mocha was later found dead in the stairwell.
Hassane Badr told The New York Times that two of his siblings, both children, were killed and that a 25-year-old cousin remained unaccounted for. Badr, 28, waited at Jacobi Medical Center for news about his 12-year-old brother, who was suffering from serious smoke inhalation. A 5-year-old sister was at another hospital.
“I’m thinking like I’m dreaming, this is not true. You hear people crying, my goodness,” Badr told the newspaper. “To be honest, I’m not believing it right now.”
Badr’s family, 11 people from Mali, lived in a three-bedroom apartment on the third floor.
Mahamadou Toure struggled to put his grief into words outside the hospital emergency room where his 5-year-old daughter and the girl’s teenage brother died, according to the Daily News.
“Right now my heart is very …,” Toure trailed off while speaking to the New York Daily News. “It’s OK. I give it to God.”
Luis Rosa said he initially thought it was a false alarm. By the time he opened the door of his 13th-floor apartment, the smoke was so thick he couldn’t see down the hallway: “So I said, OK, we can’t run down the stairs because if we run down the stairs, we’re going to end up suffocating.”
“All we could do was wait,” he said.
The fire was New York City’s deadliest since 1990, when 87 people died in an arson at the Happy Land social club, also in the Bronx. The borough was also home to a deadly apartment building fire in 2017 that killed 13 people and a 2007 fire, also started by a space heater, that killed nine.
Sunday’s fire happened just days after 12 people, including eight children, were killed in a house fire in Philadelphia.
Associated Press writers Michael R. Sisak and Jennifer Peltz in New York and Andrew Selsky in Salem, Oregon, contributed to this report.