NEW YORK (AP) – Investigators on Monday sought answers as to why security doors did not close when a fire broke out in a New York City skyscraper, allowing thick smoke to enter climb through the tower and kill 17 people, including eight children, in the deadliest town. blaze for more than three decades.
A faulty electric heater apparently started the fire in the 19-story building in the Bronx on Sunday, firefighters said. The flames damaged only a small part of the building, but smoke seeped through the open apartment door and turned the stairwells into dark, ash-choked death traps. Stairs were the only method of escape in a tower too high for fire escapes.
Fire marshal Daniel Nigro said the apartment’s front door and a door on the 15th floor should have closed automatically and dampened the spread of smoke, but the doors remained fully open. It was not clear if the doors had failed mechanically or if they had been deactivated manually. Nigro said the apartment door was not blocked.
The thick smoke prevented some residents from escaping and hit others as they tried to escape, firefighters said. Firefighters transported soft children and gave them oxygen and continued to perform rescues even after their air supply was exhausted.
Glenn Corbett, professor of fire science at John Jay College in New York City, said closed doors are essential for containing fire and smoke, especially in buildings that do not have automatic sprinkler systems.
“It’s pretty remarkable that a door failure could result in the number of fatalities we’ve had here, but it’s the reality,” Corbett said. “This door played a vital role in allowing fire to spread and smoke and heat to spread vertically through the building.”
Dozens of people have been hospitalized, many of them in critical condition. Mayor Eric Adams called it an “unspeakable tragedy” at a near-stage press conference on Monday.
“This tragedy is not going to define us,” Adams said. “It will show our resilience. “
Adams reduced the death toll from an initial report on Sunday, saying two fewer people were killed than originally thought. Nigro said the patients were taken to seven hospitals and “there was a bit of a double count.”
The dead included children as young as 4, said city council member Oswald Feliz.
An investigation was underway to determine exactly how the blaze had spread and if anything could have been done to prevent or contain the blaze, Nigro said.
A fire official said the heater had been on for an “extended period” before the fire started. The cause of its malfunction is still under investigation, said spokesman Frank Dwyer. The fire then quickly spread to nearby furniture and bedding, Dwyer said.
Nigro said the heating was on in the building before the fire started and the radiator was being used to supplement it.
But Stefan Beauvogui, who lived with his wife in the apartment building for around seven years, said the cold was a persistent problem in his fourth-floor apartment. Beauvogui said he has three heaters for the winter – for the bedrooms and living room. The heating system that was supposed to heat the apartment “doesn’t work for nothing”. He said he complained, but it had not been resolved.
Large and new apartment buildings must have sprinkler systems and interior doors that close automatically to contain smoke and deprive fires of oxygen, but these rules do not apply to thousands of older buildings from the city.
The building was fitted with self-closing doors and smoke detectors, but several residents said they initially ignored the alarms because they were so common in the 120-unit building.
Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC, the group that owns the building, said it is cooperating fully with the fire department and the city and working to help residents.
“We are devastated by the unimaginable loss of life caused by this profound tragedy,” the statement said.
A spokesperson for the homeowners group, Kelly Magee, said maintenance staff repaired the lock on the front door of the apartment in which the fire had started in July and while performing this repair, had checked that the apartment’s self-closing door was working. No issues were reported with the door after this point, Magee said.
New York City inspectors have issued violations for problems with self-closing doors in five apartments in the building and one opening onto a stairwell dating back a dozen years, according to a database. data maintained by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Records indicate that all violations have been corrected.
Residents who smoked in stairwells occasionally set off fire alarms and property managers were working with them to resolve the issue, Magee said. She said the alarms appeared to be working fine on Sunday.
The tower was required by building codes to have sprinklers only in its trash compactor and laundry room, as it has concrete ceilings and floors, she said.
Camber Property Group is one of three companies in the property group that purchased the building in 2020 as part of the $ 166 million purchase of eight affordable housing buildings in the borough. One of Camber’s founders, Rick Gropper, served on Adams’ transition team advising him on housing. He contributed a dozen politicians in the last election, including $ 400 to Adams’ campaign last year.
New York City was slow to require sprinklers for older apartment buildings, passing laws to require them in high-rise office towers after 9/11, but relying on them years on a bill that would require such measures in residential buildings.
In 2018, a city lawmaker proposed requiring automatic sprinklers in residential buildings 40 feet or more by the end of 2029, but the measure was never passed and the lawmaker recently stepped down.
A heat-triggered sprinkler system in the apartment could have saved lives, said Ronald Siarnicki, executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.
“It probably would have put out this fire or at least brought it under control and not produced the amount of toxic smoke,” Siarnicki said, adding that fire groups have been pushing for years for more stringent fire requirements. ‘automatic fire extinguishers.
The building is home to many families from The Gambia in West Africa.
Resident Karen Dejesus said she used to hear the fire alarm go off.
“It wasn’t until I saw the smoke come in through the door that I realized it was a real fire, and I started hearing people screaming, ‘Help! To help! Help !’ “, did she say.
Dejesus, who was in his two-story apartment with his son and 3-year-old granddaughter, immediately called family members and ran to get some towels to put under the door. But smoke started to come down her stairs before the 56-year-old resident could get the towels, so the three ran to the back of the apartment.
“It was so scary,” she said. “Just the fact that we’re in a burning building and you don’t know how you’re going to get by.” You don’t know if the fire department will reach you on time.
The firefighters kicked in her door and helped the three of them get out the window and down a ladder to safety. Dejesus clung to his rescuer on the way down.
The fire was New York City’s deadliest since 1990, when 87 people died in an arson attack at the Happy Land social club, also in the Bronx. Sunday’s fire came just days after 12 people, including eight children, were killed in a house fire in Philadelphia.
Associated Press editors Bobby Caina Calvan, Deepti Hajela, and Bernard Condon contributed to this report.