Deadly Bronx fire: Security doors failed in New York City high-rise buildings, killing 17

NEW YORK — Investigators Monday sought answers as to why security doors didn’t close when a fire broke out at a New York high-rise, sending thick smoke billowing through the tower and killing 17 people, including eight children, in the deadliest blaze in the city in more than three decades.

A faulty electric heater apparently started the blaze at the 19-story building in the Bronx on Sunday, firefighters said. The flames damaged only a small part of the building, but smoke poured through the open apartment door, turning stairwells into dark, ash-choked death traps. The stairs were the only way to escape into a tower that was too high for fire escapes.

Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said the apartment’s front door and a door on the 15th floor should have been self-closing and prevented the spread of smoke, but the doors were left fully open. It was not clear if the doors were failing mechanically or if they had been manually turned off. Nigro said the apartment door was unobstructed.

The heavy smoke prevented some residents from escaping and incapacitated others as they tried to flee, fire officials said. Victims, many in cardiac and respiratory arrest, were found on every floor. Firefighters evacuated and oxygenated limp children and continued rescues even after their air supply ran out.

Glenn Corbett, a fire science professor at John Jay College in New York City, said closed doors are vital to control fire and smoke, especially in buildings without automatic sprinkler systems.

“It’s quite remarkable that the failure of one door could lead to the number of deaths we had here, but that’s the reality,” Corbett said. “That one door played a vital role in spreading the fire and spreading smoke and heat vertically throughout the building.”

Dozens of people were hospitalized, several in critical condition. Mayor Eric Adams called it an “unspeakable tragedy” at a news conference near the scene Monday.

“This tragedy will not define us,” Adams said. “It will show our resilience.”

Adams lowered the death toll from an initial report on Sunday and said two fewer people were killed than originally thought. Nigro said patients were taken to seven hospitals and there was “a bit of double counting.”

The dead included children as young as 4 years old, city councilor Oswald Feliz said.

An investigation is underway to determine how the fire spread and whether anything could have been done to prevent or contain the fire, Nigro said.

A fire officer said the stove had been running for a “prolonged period” before the fire broke out. What caused the outage is still under investigation, spokesman Frank Dwyer said. The fire then quickly spread to nearby furniture and bedding, Dwyer said.

Nigro said the heating in the building was on before the fire broke out, and the stove was being used to supplement it.

But Stefan Beauvogui, who lived in the building with his wife for about seven years, said the cold was an ongoing problem in his fourth-floor apartment. Beauvogui said he had three stoves for the winter – for the bedrooms and the sitting room. The heating system that was supposed to heat the apartment “works for a reason”. He said he had complained but it was not resolved.

Large, new apartment buildings must have sprinkler systems and interior doors that close automatically to block smoke and prevent oxygen in the event of a fire, but those rules don’t apply to thousands of older buildings in the city.

The building was equipped with self-closing doors and smoke detectors, but several residents said they ignored the alarms at first because they were so common in the 120-unit building.

Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC, the group that owns the building, said it was cooperating fully with the fire service and the city and working to help residents.

“We are devastated by the unimaginable loss of life caused by this profound tragedy,” the statement said.

A spokeswoman for the property group, Kelly Magee, said maintenance workers repaired the lock on the front door of the apartment where the fire started in July and, while making that repair, checked that the apartment’s self-closing door was working. After that, no more problems with the door have been reported, Magee said.

Residents who smoked in the stairwells sometimes turned off the fire alarms, and property managers had worked with them to address the problem, Magee said. She said the alarms seemed to be working fine on Sunday.

According to building codes, the tower was only required to have sprinklers in the trash compactor and laundry room because it has concrete ceilings and floors, she said.

Camber Property Group is one of three companies in the property group to purchase the building in 2020 as part of its purchase of eight affordable homes in the neighborhood valued at $166 million. One of Camber’s founders, Rick Gropper, was a member of Adams’ transition team and advised him on housing. He has contributed to a dozen politicians in the last election, including $400 to last year’s Adams campaign.

New York City has been slow to mandate sprinklers for older apartment buildings, passing laws to mandate them in high-rise office towers after 9/11, but in recent years has introduced a bill that would require such measures in residential buildings.

In 2018, a city legislature proposed requiring automatic sprinklers in residential buildings 40 feet or higher by the end of 2029, but that measure was never passed and the legislature recently left office.

A sprinkler system caused by the heat in the apartment could have saved lives, said Ronald Siarnicki, director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

“Most likely, it would have extinguished or at least contained that fire and not produced the amount of toxic smoke,” Siarnicki said, adding that fire groups have been lobbying for stricter sprinkler requirements for years.

Many families who are originally from The Gambia in West Africa live in the building.

Resident Karen Dejesus said she was used to hearing the fire alarm go off.

“It wasn’t until I saw the smoke coming through the door that I realized it was a real fire, and I started hearing people screaming, ‘Help! Help! Help!'”

Dejesus, who was in her two-story apartment with her son and 3-year-old granddaughter, immediately called relatives and ran to get towels to put under the door. But before the 56-year-old resident could get to the towels, smoke started coming from her stairs, so the three ran to the back of the apartment.

“It was so scary,” she said. “Just the fact that we’re in a burning building and you don’t know how to get out. You don’t know if the firefighters can reach you in time.’

Firefighters broke into her door and helped all three out of the window and down a ladder to safety. Dejesus clung to her rescuer on the way down.

The fire was the deadliest in New York City since 1990, when 87 people died in an arson attack at Happy Land social club, also in the Bronx. Sunday’s fire happened just days after 12 people, including eight children, were killed in a house fire in Philadelphia.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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