Investigators sought answers Monday as to why safety doors in a New York high-rise failed to close when a fire broke out, enabling dense smoke to ascend up the tower and kill 17 people, including eight children, in the city’s worst fire in more than three decades.
According to fire authorities, the fire in the 19-story Bronx skyscraper was caused by a defective electric space heater on Sunday. The flames only burned a tiny portion of the structure, but smoke rushed in through the open door of the flat, turning the stairwells into black, ash-choked death traps. In a tower too tall for fire escapes, the stairs were the only way out.
The apartment’s entrance door and a door on the 15th floor should have been self-closing and prevented the spread of smoke, according to Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro, but the doors remained fully open. It was unclear if the doors had been deactivated manually or had failed mechanically. The apartment door, according to Nigro, was not blocked.
According to fire authorities, the thick smoke prevented some individuals from fleeing and rendered others unconscious as they attempted to evacuate. Even when their air supply ran out, firefighters pulled weak youngsters out and gave them oxygen, continuing to make rescues.
Closed doors, according to Glenn Corbett, a fire science professor at John Jay College in New York City, are critical for controlling fire and smoke, particularly in buildings without automated sprinkler systems.
“It’s incredible that the collapse of one door could result in as many deaths as we had here,” Corbett remarked. “That one door was important in allowing the fire to progress vertically through the structure, as well as the smoke and heat.”
Hundreds of people were sent to the hospital, with dozens in severe condition. At a press conference near the scene Monday, Mayor Eric Adams called it a “unspeakable tragedy.”
“This tragedy will not define us,” Adams declared. “It will demonstrate our tenacity.”
Adams revised the death toll from a Sunday report, saying two fewer individuals were killed than previously thought. Patients were sent to seven hospitals, according to Nigro, and “there was a bit of a double count.”
Children as young as four years old were among the fatalities, according to City Council Member Oswald Feliz.
According to Nigro, an inquiry is ongoing to understand how the fire spread and whether anything could have been done to prevent or limit it.
The space heater had been running for a “prolonged period” before the fire started, according to a fire department officer. According to spokesperson Frank Dwyer, the reason of the failure is still being investigated. According to Dwyer, the fire immediately spread to neighboring furniture and bedding.
The heat in the facility was on when the fire erupted, according to Nigro, and the space heater was being used to complement it.
However, Stefan Beauvogui, who has lived in the building for roughly seven years with his wife, stated that cold was a constant issue in their fourth-floor flat. For the winter, Beauvogui stated he had three space heaters: one for each bedroom and one for the sitting area. “It doesn’t function for nothing,” the heating system that was intended to keep the flat warm said. He said that he had complained, but that nothing had been done about it.
Sprinkler systems and internal doors that swing shut automatically are needed in new apartment buildings to limit smoke and deprive flames of oxygen, but thousands of older structures are exempt from the restrictions.
Although the building had self-closing doors and smoke alarms, numerous tenants stated they ignored the alerts at first since they were so prevalent in the 120-unit building.
The building’s owner, Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC, stated it was completely collaborating with the fire department and the city in order to assist residents.
The statement continued, “We are heartbroken by the terrible loss of life caused by this deep catastrophe.”
Kelly Magee, a spokesperson for the owning company, said maintenance employees repaired the lock on the front door of the apartment where the fire originated in July and checked that the flat’s self-closing door was operating at the same time. After then, no problems with the door were reported, according to Magee.
According to a database kept by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, inspectors have issued citations for concerns with self-closing doors on five units in the building and one opening to a staircase dating back a dozen years. According to the documents, all of the infractions were remedied.
Smoking in the stairwells activated the fire alarms on occasion, and property management had been working with residents to resolve the issue, according to Magee. On Sunday, she stated the alarms looked to be working well.
Because it had concrete ceilings and floors, the tower was only required by building rules to include sprinklers in its garbage compactor and laundry room.
Camber Property Group is one of three companies that bought the property in 2020 as part of a $166 million deal to buy eight affordable housing properties in the borough. Rick Gropper, one of Camber’s founders, was a member of Adams’ transition team and advised him on housing. In recent elections, he has donated to a dozen lawmakers, including $400 to Adams’ campaign last year.
New York City has been sluggish to install sprinklers in older apartment buildings, enacting rules requiring them in high-rise office towers after 9/11 but deferring a bill requiring them in residential buildings in recent years.
Karen Dejesus, a resident, said she was used to hearing the fire alarm sound.
“I didn’t believe it was a genuine fire until I saw the smoke streaming in the door and heard people crying, ‘Help! Help! Help!'” she explained.
Dejesus, who was in her two-story flat with her son and 3-year-old granddaughter, dialed 911 and rushed to fetch towels to place under the door. However, before the 56-year-old tenant could retrieve the towels, smoke began to pour down her stairs, so the three dashed to the back of the flat.
“It was terrifying,” she said. “Just the reality that we’re in a burning building with no idea how we’re going to get out.” You have no idea if the firefighters will arrive in time.”
Firefighters shattered her door and assisted all three of them out the window and down a ladder to safety. On the way down, Dejesus clutched to her saviour.
The fire was the deadliest in New York City since an arson at the Happy Land social club in the Bronx killed 87 people in 1990. The incident occurred just days after a house fire in Philadelphia killed 12 people, including eight children.