‘Their lives matter’: Building owners sued over deadly Bronx fire

Lawsuits allege neglect in building blaze that killed 17 people in mostly immigrant community in New York last month.

News conference
'The whole process is very, very heartbreaking ... We have to hold the proper people accountable,' says Fatima Janneh, who lost her sister in the US fire [Seth Wenig/AP Photo]

Families of victims in last month’s fire in the Bronx have filed lawsuits against the building’s owners, accusing them of “reckless disregard” for United States safety rules as calls for accountability over the blaze that killed 17 people continue to grow.

At a news conference announcing the lawsuits on Tuesday, lawyers and survivors stressed that residents of the building, who are mostly African immigrants and people of colour, are entitled to the same protections and rights as New Yorkers in more white and affluent neighbourhoods.

Benjamin Crump, a prominent Florida-based civil rights attorney representing several families suing the tower’s owners, decried the “unspeakable loss of life” due to what he said were violations of safety regulations.

“These [are] Black families who lost so much, that seemed to be marginalised not only before the tragic fire broke out, but even in the aftermath,” Crump said. “And that’s why we are taking this stand, to say that their lives matter. We can’t marginalise them, just sweep this under the rug.”

Eight children were amongst the 17 victims in the blaze at the 19-storey Twin Parks North West – home to a large community of immigrants from the Gambia and other West African nations.

New York officials have blamed a malfunctioning space heater for starting the fire. The blaze had produced heavy smoke that immersed the building and suffocated the victims.

On Tuesday, lawyers cited a lack of adequate heating and issues with windows that did not open and doors that were supposed to be self-closing as alleged code violations that they say contributed to the death toll from the fire.

“This is about investors coming to the Bronx, letting these people die in these buildings because they’re not interested in the people. They’re interested in profit. This profit over people, that’s what this case is about,” said Larry Goldhirsch, another attorney involved in the lawsuits.

The lawsuits, which name five real estate and investment firms as defendants, are seeking to recover damages for the victims and their families, saying that they sustained “severe personal injuries, fright, emotional distress, and/or property damage due to said fire”.

The suits were filed in the Superior Court in the Bronx on behalf of six families, Crump said.

Lawyers said they have not specified the compensation amount they are seeking. Al Jazeera was not able to contact the defendants. The Associated Press said it sent an email to the building’s owners but had not published a response by the time of publication.

Tuesday’s lawsuits are the latest legal effort against the tower’s owners. Last month two people who survived the blaze filed a $3bn lawsuit.

Firefighters work outside an apartment building after a fire
Firefighters work outside an apartment building after the deadly fire in the Bronx, New York, on January 9 [File: Yuki Iwamura/AP Photo]

Fatima Janneh, who lost her 27-year-old sister Sera in the fire, said she and her family remain displaced after the blaze.

“The whole process is very, very heartbreaking … We have to hold the proper people accountable,” Janneh told the media onTuesday.

Fatiah Touray, who grew up in the building, said with “no real viable options of places”, many residents are still living in hotels a month after the tragedy.

“We may be Black and brown and African and immigrants, but we’re working-class people,” she said at the news conference.

“We’re not fungible; we’re not disposable. You can’t just throw us away. And just because we have a certain socioeconomic status, that doesn’t mean that our lives don’t matter.”

Source: Al Jazeera