At least 17 people were killed, including eight children, and dozens of others injured in an apartment building fire in New York City’s deadliest blaze 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. Survivors told of fleeing in panic through darkened hallways, barely able to breathe.
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New York City Mayor Eric Adams had said that nineteen people died in the blaze that broke out about 11am (16:00 GMT) on Sunday in the Twin Parks apartment building in the Bronx area of the city but revised the death toll down to 17 on Monday.
Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said patients were taken to seven hospitals and “there was a bit of a double count.”
The 19-storey tower provided affordable housing and had a large community of people of Gambian origin. The children who died were 16 years old or younger, said Stefan Ringel, a senior adviser to the mayor.
“This is a horrific, horrific, painful moment for the city of New York,” Adams told reporters. “The numbers are horrific.”
More than five dozen people were hurt and 13 were hospitalised in critical condition. The fire commissioner said most of the victims had severe smoke inhalation.
The fire started from a portable electric heater in the bedroom of one of the apartments, officials said.
The smoke spread to every floor of the building, probably because the door to the apartment had been left open, the city’s fire department commissioner Daniel Nigro told reporters.
“Members found victims on every floor in stairwells and were taking them out in cardiac and respiratory arrest,” Nigro said.
Firefighters continued making rescues even after their air supplies ran out, Adams said. “Their oxygen tanks were empty and they still pushed through the smoke.”
Questions on safety
Some residents said they initially ignored wailing smoke alarms because false alarms were so common in the building, built in the early 1970s as affordable housing.
Building resident Sandra Clayton said she grabbed her dog and ran for her life when she saw the hallway filling with smoke and heard people screaming, “Get out! Get out!”
Clayton, 61, said she groped her way down a darkened stairway. The smoke was so black that she could not see, but she could hear neighbours wailing and crying nearby.
“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.
At a makeshift shelter on Sunday evening, Frantz Sannon was rushing to see his parents, who had been living on the fourth floor of the building for years.
Sannon, 45, said they must have left their phones in the apartment because he was not able to reach them after learning about the fire.
“I can’t wait to get to speak to them right now,” he told Reuters news agency before entering the school.
The fire is the second deadly blaze in public housing complex in the US in a week and looks likely to stir questions on safety standards such buildings.
The building did not have external fire escapes, and residents had to evacuate through interior stairways, Nigro said. “I think some of them could not escape because of the volume of smoke,” he said.
About 200 firefighters helped put out the blaze, and some ran out of oxygen in their tanks.
Nigro said he believed there were 120 apartments in the building. “There’s a very large number of people right now who need a place to stay,” he said.
A city emergency management official said everyone who needed housing would be registered and would be placed in hotels for an “extended period” until it was safe to return to the building.
Nigro 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 was thrown out.
Sunday’s death toll was the highest for a fire in the city since the Happy Land fire, other than the September 11 attacks.