FDNY: Malfunctioning space heater caused fire that killed at least 19, including 9 children
A faulty space heater on a chilly Sunday morning sparked a fire that filled a high-rise Bronx apartment building with thick smoke, killing 19 people including nine children. It was New York City’s deadliest fire in three decades.
Trapped residents broke windows for air and stuffed wet towels under doors as smoke rose from a lower-floor apartment where the fire started. Multiple limp children were seen being given oxygen after they were carried out. Evacuees had faces covered in soot.
Firefighters found victims on every floor, many of them in cardiac and respiratory arrest, said Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro. Some people “could not escape because of the volume of smoke,” he said. More than five dozen people were hurt and 13 people were hospitalized in critical condition. The fire commissioner said most of the victims had severe smoke inhalation.
Mayor Eric Adams praised FDNY firefighters for continuing to make rescues even after their oxygen tanks had run out.
Stefan Ringel, a senior adviser to Adams, said the children who died were 16 years old or younger. Adams said at a news conference that many residents were originally from the West African nation of Gambia.
One man who was pulled to safety said he’d initially scoffed when the fire alarm went off, saying he’d become numb to them because of frequent false alarms at the apartment tower.
Nigro said investigators found the fire “started in a malfunctioning electric space heater” in an apartment unit spanning the second and third floors of the 19-story building. The door to the apartment and a door to a stairwell were left open, letting smoke quickly spread throughout the building, Nigro said.
Building resident Sandra Clayton said she ran for her life when she saw the hallway filling with black smoke and heard people screaming, “Get out! Get out!”
Clayton, 61, said she groped her way down a darkened stairway, clutching her dog in her arms. The smoke was so thick and black that she couldn’t see, but she could tell there were other tenants nearby because she heard their panicked wails and crying.
Her dog, Mocha, slipped from her arms in the commotion at was later found dead in the stairwell.
“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.
About 200 firefighters responded to the building on East 181st Street around 11 a.m. Sunday.
Building resident Luis Rosa also thought the it was a false alarm at first, but when a notification popped up on his phone, he and his mother began to worry. By then, smoke began wafting into his 13th-floor apartment and he heard sirens in the distance.
He opened the front door, but the smoke had gotten too thick for an escape, he said.
“Once I opened the door, I couldn’t even see that far down the hallway,” Rosa told The Associated Press. “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.
Another resident, Vernessa Cunningham said she raced home from church after getting an alert on her cellphone that the building was on fire.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was in shock,” Cunningham, 60, said from a nearby school where some residents gathered. “I could see my apartment. The windows were all busted out. And I could see flames coming from the back of the building.”
The 120-unit building in the Twin Parks North West complex was built in 1973 as part of a project to build modern, affordable housing in the Bronx.
The drab brown building looms over an intersection of smaller, aging brick buildings overlooking Webster Avenue, one of the Bronx’s main thoroughfares.
By Sunday afternoon, all that remained visible of the unit where the fire started was a gaping black hole where the windows had been blown out. Apartments as high as the 12th floor also had broken windows. The intersection was choked with police and fire vehicles, and onlookers were still snapping cellphone pictures of the structure as darkness fell.
“There’s no guarantee that there’s a working fire alarm in every apartment, or in every common area,” U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres, a Democrat who represents the area, told the AP. “Most of these buildings have no sprinkler system. And so the housing stock of the Bronx is much more susceptible to devastating fires than most of the housing stock in the city.”
Nigro and Torres both compared the fire’s severity to a 1990 blaze at the Happy Land social club where 87 people were killed when a man set fire to the building after getting into an argument with his former girlfriend and being thrown out of the Bronx club.
Sunday’s death toll was the highest for a fire in the city since the Happy Land fire. It was also the deadliest fire at a U.S. residential apartment building since 2017 when 13 people died in an apartment building, also in the Bronx, according to data from the National Fire Protection Association.
That fire started with a 3-year-old boy playing with stove burners and led to several law changes in New York City, including having the fire department to create a plan for educating children and parents on fire safety and requiring certain residential buildings to install self-closing doors.
Sunday’s fire happened just days after 12 people, including eight children, were killed in a house fire in Philadelphia. The deadliest fire prior to that was in 1989 when a Tennessee apartment building fire claimed the lives of 16 people.
NYC Health + Hospitals/Jacobi released a statement to News 12 saying, “Today's fire was a terrible tragedy, and our thoughts are with the families of those affected. NYC Health + Hospitals/Jacobi received 19 patients. This is a difficult time for these patients, their families, and our community. We ask that you respect their privacy. We will provide an update tomorrow morning.”
St. Barnabas Hospital says they have 20 patients and nine fatalities (including two children). They say most have since been transferred to other hospitals for more advanced treatment.
Adams and Nigro called the incident “unprecedented.”
“This is going to be one of the worst fires that we have witnessed during modern times," said the mayor.
Firefighters “found victims on every floor and were taking them out in cardiac and respiratory arrest,” Nigro said.
Nigro compared the severity of the fire to the Happy Land social club fire, which killed 87 people in 1990 when a man set fire to the building after getting into an argument with his former girlfriend and being thrown out of the club.
Department of Buildings tells News 12, “Our preliminary investigation has determined that 333 East 181st Street is stable, and the fire did not affect the structural integrity of the building.”
The DOB says it issued a partial vacate order, affecting apartments 3A through 3P on the third floor due to fire damage to those units.
All residents displaced by the fire have been offered emergency relocation assistance by the American Red Cross, according to DOB.
The department is asking everyone to reach out to the NYC Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) for additional information about HPD Vacate Orders at the property.
Another fire in 2007 at 1022 Woodcrest Ave. killed 10 people, including nine children. FDNY said that incident was caused by an overloaded space heater.
The American Red Cross released a statement to News 12 stating, “Our hearts go out to all affected by the tragic fire in the Bronx, New York on Sunday, January 9th. The American Red Cross is on the scene providing support and emergency relief to affected families. A reception center has been opened for those in need of assistance at The Angelo Patri Middle School located at 2190 Folin Street, Bronx, NY 10457. Families in need can also contact the Red Cross at 877-RED CROSS. Red Cross services are available to all in need during times of emergency - regardless of race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation or citizenship status.”
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries released a statement saying, “My thoughts and prayers are with all who have been lost and injured in the horrific fire in the Bronx. Any loss of life is catastrophic, but the death of 9 children is unimaginably painful, and my heart breaks for their families. I thank the New York Fire Department and all the first responders who reported to the call for their heroic efforts to save as many as possible. May God watch over all those affected during this tragic time.”
See photos from the scene:
Department of Buildings inspectors were conducting structural stability inspections at the high-rise and assisting in the investigation, the agency said.
The mayor said anyone unable to contact loved ones they believe were in the building can call 311.
“Many of these buildings are old. Not every apartment has a fire alarm. Most of these buildings have no sprinkler system,” Rep. Ritchie Torres said on MSNBC. "And so the risk of a fire is much higher in lower income neighborhoods, in the Bronx, than it might be elsewhere in the city or in the country.”
State Sen. Gustavo Rivera said anyone affected by the fire could call his office for assistance at 718-933-2034. Rivera also directed people to the Red Cross reception center at M.S. 391 or to call 877-RED CROSS.
"This is a devastating day for our borough," said Rivera. "I’m incredibly heartbroken by the extensive loss of life as a result of the massive fire that broke out at 333 E 181 Street earlier today. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who perished as they mourn their loved ones. I also pray for the recovery of those who sustained critical injuries due to this fire."
AP Wire Services were used in this report.