NEW YORK — As community members in the Bronx mourned the 17 people who died in a high-rise apartment fire, authorities on Tuesday continued investigating how smoke spread so quickly.
Fire and city officials said a malfunctioning space heater caused the blaze, but the choking smoke throughout the building left residents barely able to breathe as they tried to escape. Two self-closing doors did not shut properly and allowed smoke to spread, Fire Department of New York Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.
All 17 people died from smoke inhalation and the city’s medical examiner ruled the deaths an “accident,” Julie Bolcer, a spokesperson for the Office of Chief Medical Examiner, told USA TODAY on Tuesday.
Eight children, some as young as 4, were among those who died. The death toll could rise as more than a dozen people remained hospitalized in critical condition, Nigro said Monday.
The fire that broke out Sunday at the 19-story building is the worst in New York City since 87 people were killed in 1990 at the Happy Land club in the Bronx.
“This is an unspeakable tragedy,” Mayor Eric Adams said. “It is not going to define us. It is going to show our resiliency.”
NYC inspectors previously flagged malfunctioning doors
The fire was sparked in a duplex unit on the second and third floors when a space heater malfunctioned and lit, Nigro said. The front door to the unit was open, even though it was supposed close on its own, as was a door to a 15th-floor stairwell, Nigro said.
The two open doors allowed smoke to billow through the stairwell, Nigro said.
“The stairwell was very dangerous as the door was left open. Some of the floors, certainly on 15, the door was open from the stairs to the hall and the 15th floor became quite untenable,” he said at a Monday news conference.
Nigro said the door was not obstructed. Adams said the door may have had a “maintenance issue.”
New York City inspectors had cited the building at least five times for issues with its self-closing doors between 2013 and 2019, according to a Department of Housing Preservation and Development database. Four were at apartments and one was at the stairwell on the third floor, and all were corrected, the records show.
A complaint related to a self-closing door was also listed on the Department of Housing Preservation and Development website as recently as last month.
Karen Dejesus, 54, who escaped her apartment on a fire ladder Sunday, told USA TODAY the door to her apartment was not self-closing and she wasn’t sure how many of the doors in the building did close automatically.
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.
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, and no concerns about the door had been reported to property management since then, the company said.
Bronx community mourns the victims
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.
At Masjid-ur-Rahmah, a mosque nearby where many building residents pray, more than two dozen people gathered Monday.
“To God we belong and to God we return,” said the mosque’s imam, Musa Kabba.
Many of those displaced were immigrants from the West African nation of Gambia, according to the Associated Press. Dawda Docka Fadera, Gambia’s ambassador to the United States, told the New York Times he came to the building from Washington to see it for himself.
BLAZE DEADLIEST IN YEARS:Malfunctioning space heater sparked Bronx apartment fire, city’s deadliest blaze in decades
“We are a very small country of about less than two million people, and we are all related,” he told the newspaper. “Everybody knows everybody, so our country is currently in a state of shock.”
“I thank God that me and my family are safe. I’m sorry for other my neighbors that didn’t make it. I’m sorry for my neighbors that are still in the hospital fighting for their life. This was crazy. This was so scary,” Dejesus told USA TODAY.
Who were the victims?
Yusupha Jawara told The Associated Press he rushed to the scene and helped bring people to a hospitala few blocks away. In the rush, he saw someone he thought looked like his brother, but he returned to the person he was helping.
“I was just helping the EMS transport one person to the hospital when I saw him — somebody similar like him — on a stretcher being brought to the ER,” Jawara told the news outlet. “At that time, I didn’t have the focus to know that it was him.”
The Associated Press reported that Jawara’s brother, Hagi, and sister-in-law, Isatou, were among the 17 people killed.
Among the dead were also three children of Haja Dukuray and Haji Dukuray, originally from Gambia, according to Haji Dukuray, the uncle of Haja Dukuray. The uncle told The Associated Press he did not know if the children’s parents survived.
Contributing: John Bacon and Grace Hauck, USA TODAY; The Associated Press