A preschooler toying with the burners on his mother’s stove accidentally lit New York City’s deadliest fire in decades, turning an apartment building into an inferno that killed a dozen people as smoke and flames swept up the stairwell in minutes and blocked the main route to safety, the fire commissioner said Friday.
The 3 ½ year-old-boy, his mother and another child were able to flee their first-floor apartment. But they left the door open behind them, and it acted like a chimney that carried the fire out of the apartment and through the five-story building, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said. At least 20 of their neighbors scrambled out via fire escapes on a bitterly cold night, but others could not.
“People had very little time to react,” Nigro said. Although firefighters arrived in just over three minutes, “bravely entered the building and did everything they could — we did save a number of residents — this loss is unprecedented.”
Twelve people died, including girls ages 1, 2 and 7 and a boy whose age was not given, officials said. Four other people were fighting for their lives.
Fernando Batiz said his sister, Maria Batiz, 56, and her 8-month-old granddaughter, were among the dead, though the baby’s mother survived.
They couldn’t escape ... The smoke, I guess, overcame her — everything happened so quick,” said Batiz, 54. He said his sister, a home care attendant, was a selfless person who had helped him when he was homeless.
“I don’t know what to think. I’m still in shock,” her shaken brother said Friday.
Excluding 9/11, it was the deadliest blaze in the city since 87 people were killed at a social club fire in the same Bronx neighborhood in 1990. A fire in a home in another part of the Bronx killed 10 people, including nine children, in 2007.
Thursday’s fire broke out just before 7 p.m. in a century-old building near the Bronx Zoo. Its roughly 20 apartments are home to people from countries ranging from the U.S. to the Dominican Republic to Guinea.
About 170 firefighters worked in 15-degree weather to rescue dozens of people.
Residents described opening their front doors to see smoke too thick to walk through and clambering down icy fire escapes with children in hand. Some escaped barefoot or in their nightclothes.
Huddled in a deli on the block with her family, Crisbel Martinez, 10, cried Friday as she recalled her escape from her fifth-floor apartment with her three older brothers.
One brother’s girlfriend was coming into the building when she saw smoke, called him and called police. With their mother at work, the siblings checked and saw the smoke.
“Then we got changed and went through the fire escape,” Crisbel said. She had spent the night at an aunt’s house.
Twum Bredu still didn’t know Friday afternoon what had become of his brother, Emmanuel Mensah, 28. He was staying with a family that had escaped the fire safely, but no one could find Mensah, despite checking four hospitals. Still, his family kept looking, and hoping for word of him.
“That’s my prayer,” said Bredu, 61.
Four families sought emergency housing Thursday night from the Red Cross, but the organization expected to get more requests in the coming days, spokesman Michael de Vulpillieres said.
Catastrophic fires at the turn of the 20th century ushered in an era of tougher enforcement of fire codes. But the building was not new enough that it was required to have modern-day fireproofing, like sprinkler systems and interior steel construction.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
New York City’s mayor says 12 people have been killed in a Bronx apartment building fire including a child around a one years old.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said during a briefing late Thursday that additional residents of the building were fighting for their lives with serious injuries.
"This will rank as one of the worst losses of life to a fire in many, many years," said de Blasio
Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro called the fire, “historic in its magnitude,” because of the number of lives lost.
The blaze was in a five-story building, a block from the grounds of the Bronx Zoo. Eric Phillips the Press Secretary for Mayor Bill de Blasio said the eventual death toll will rise.
The Fire Department of New York said earlier that 15 people were seriously injured in the fire.
About 170 firefighters worked in bone-chilling cold, just 15 degrees, to rescue people from the building.
Photographs and video of the building seemed to show that the fire, which was reported just before 7 p.m., appeared to be under control. No smoke or flames were visible but windows on the third floor were smashed and blackened.
"The smoke was crazy, people screaming, 'Get out!," a witness, Jamal Flicker, told the New York Post. "I heard a woman yelling, 'We're trapped, help!"
According to city records, the building had no elevator. Fire escapes were visible on the facade of the building.
Another deadly fire that happened in the Bronx was in 2007. Nine children and one adult died in a blaze sparked by a space heater.