(The Southern African Times) – A malfunctioning space heater sparked a fire that filled a high-rise apartment building in New York City with thick smoke Sunday morning, killing 19 people including nine children.
The children who died were 16 years old or younger, said Stefan Ringel, a senior adviser to the mayor. Mayor Eric Adams said at a news conference that many residents were originally from the West African nation of Gambia. Other media outlets reported that families from Mali and Burkina Faso also lived in the building.
Hassane Badr’s family, a total of 11 people from Mali, including his parents and siblings, lived in a three-bedroom apartment on the third floor. Two siblings, both children, were killed, he said, adding that a 25-year-old cousin remained unaccounted for.
He said his family had lived at the high-rise for at least six years, drawn to it in part for its African connection and the availability of mosques nearby.
Many survivors were brought to a temporary shelter in a nearby school.
Trapped residents broke windows for air and stuffed wet towels under doors as smoke rose from a lower-floor apartment where the fire started. Survivors told of fleeing in panic down darkened hallways and stairs, barely able to breathe.
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 in cardiac and respiratory arrest said Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro. Some could not escape because of the volume of smoke, he said.
Some residents said they initially ignored wailing smoke alarms because false alarms were so common in the 120-unit building, built in the Bronx in the early 1970s as affordable housing.
Investigators said the fire, triggered by the electric heater, started in a duplex apartment on the second and third floors of the 19-story building.
The flames didn’t spread far, only charring the one unit and an adjacent hallway. But the door to the apartment and a door to a stairwell had been left open, letting smoke quickly spread throughout the building, Nigro said.
New York City fire codes generally require apartment doors to be spring-loaded and slam shut automatically, but it was not immediately clear whether this building was covered by those rules.
Jose Henriquez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who lives on the 10th floor, said the building’s fire alarms would frequently go off but would turn out to be false.
“It seems like today, they went off but the people didn’t pay attention,” Henriquez said in Spanish.
He and his family stayed, wedging a wet towel beneath the door once they realized the smoke in the halls would overpower them if they tried to flee.
Sunday’s death toll was the highest for a fire at a U.S. residential apartment building in years. In 2017, 13 people died in an apartment building, also in the Bronx, according to data from the National Fire Protection Association.