Hospitals worked Monday to save several people who were gravely injured in a Bronx apartment building fire as a clearer picture emerged of what caused New York City’s deadliest fire in three decades.
Dozens of people were hospitalized after the fire Sunday, which authorities say broke out at around 11 a.m. As many as 13 people were admitted into hospitals in critical condition. Their status was unclear as of Monday morning.
"Today’s fire was a terrible tragedy, and our thoughts are with the families of those affected," Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx said in a statement on Sunday, saying it had received 19 patients from the blaze.
The city-run hospital said Monday two of its patients died and five are in serious condition. The rest were discharged, according to a hospital spokesperson.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams corrected the death toll during a Monday press conference, saying the medical examiner's office confirmed 17 people died, nine adults and eight children.
Officials initially said 19 were killed in the blaze. Injured residents and victims were taken to seven different hospitals and a mistake in the count resulted in the wrong number of deaths.
President Joe Biden offered assistance and resources from the White House, according to Adams. The mayor said that "this tragedy will not define us."
"It is going to show our resiliency as we help the families through this," Adams said. "In the middle of such pain, we have witnessed such a high level of heroism from our hospital staff, the doctors, the nurses, the administrators, who are already going through a crisis with the pandemic."
New York City Fire Commissioner Dan Nigro said investigators had determined that a malfunctioning electric space heater appeared to have been behind the blaze.
While the fire damaged only a small part of the building, heavy smoke swept through its stairwells and halls, trapping residents in their homes and incapacitating those who tried to escape.
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Nigro said the fire had been able to expand because a door in the two-level second-floor unit where the fire started had either been left open or did not automatically close after residents fled.
He added the building, which was constructed in 1972 with federal support, did not have fire escapes, only internal stairwells. Because of its federal origins, Nigro said, “it was potentially built outside the New York City fire code.”
Some victims were found in the halls and stairwells, prompting Nigro to remind people that the recommendation for those in fireproof high-rise buildings is to shelter in place during a fire.
“Certainly the stairwell was very dangerous, as the door was left open,” Nigro said Monday. “Some of the floors — certainly on 15 — the door was open from the stair to the hall and the 15th floor became quite untenable.”
Around 200 firefighters responded to the blaze on East 181st Street, according to the fire department, with the flames contained by around 1 p.m., NBC New York reported.
As they responded to the blaze, firefighters found victims on every floor, with many in cardiac and respiratory arrest, Nigro said.
According to Mayor Eric Adams, firefighters worked to save lives even after their own air supplies ran out.
“Their oxygen tanks were empty and they still pushed through the smoke,” he said.
Nigro said an investigation was underway to determine how the blaze spread and whether anything could have been done to prevent or contain it.
The building was equipped with smoke alarms, but a number of residents said they initially ignored them because alarms often went off in the 120-unit structure.
Newer buildings in the city are required to have sprinkler systems and interior doors that automatically shut to contain smoke and reduce a fire's access to oxygen. Those rules, however, do not apply to older buildings.
Tributes for those killed in the blaze have poured in on social media as some have asked how they can help support their families, as well as survivors.
Speaking at a news conference on Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said many of the dead were “immigrants working to drive that ladder up, and their lives snuffed out.”
In a tweet, Adams’ office said the city would fly flags at half-staff until sunset Wednesday “as a mark of respect for the victims of the tragic fire.”
The mayor's office said people interested in helping those affected by the fire could donate to a fund supporting victims' families and survivors.
"Your entire donation will go towards those impacted," it said.
The American Red Cross in Greater New York said it was providing support and emergency relief to at least 21 families, including 54 adults and 24 children, who have been "displaced long term from their home."
It added that an NYC Service Center would be open on Monday for affected residents at Monroe College from noon to 8 p.m.
One resident who survived the deadly blaze told NBC New York that she had been making breakfast in her third floor apartment when she noticed the smoke.
“We just hovered in the back room ... and next thing we know we see flames coming out the back windows and stuff,” she said.
“We smelling the smoke and the next thing we know, the whole upstairs and my apartment is black and the fire department breaking in the door to come get us," she said. "We had to climb out the window and everything.”
On Sunday evening, a spokesperson for Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC, the owner of the building, said its alarm system had worked properly during the fire.
“There are no known issues with the smoke alarms and it appears the fire alarm system worked as designed,” they said by email.
The spokesperson also suggested that the doors had been working as designed, saying that "the building has self-closing doors, as required, and there have been no violations related to self-closing doors at the property.”
The owner, which the spokesperson described as a joint venture of three investor groups, released a statement offering condolences for the victims of the blaze and expressing sympathy for those displaced, saying it would accommodate "longer term housing" if needed.
“We are devastated by the unimaginable loss of life caused by this profound tragedy,” it said. “We are cooperating fully with the Fire Department and other city agencies as they investigate its cause, and we are doing all we can to assist our residents.”
The fire is the deadliest in NYC since 1990, when 87 people died in an arson at the Happy Land social club, also in the Bronx.
It also comes just days after a deadly fire at a rowhouse in Philadelphia left 12 people dead, including eight children. Officials there said none of the four battery-operated smoke detectors were working at the time.