BRONX, N.Y. — At least two doors in the high-rise building in the Bronx that suffered a catastrophic fire Sunday were malfunctioning, and did not automatically close as they were supposed to, city Fire Department Commissioner Daniel Nigro said at a press briefing Monday afternoon.
The fire was sparked by an electric space heater in an apartment on the second floor, creating an enormous volume of smoke, Nigro said, adding that firefighters found victims on nearly every floor of the building.
After officials on Sunday initially said 19 people were killed, Mayor Eric Adams said at the briefing that that number was modified to 17 - nine adults and eight children. At least 66 people were hurt.
Nigro said the initial miscount was due to the victims being taken to seven different hospitals, leading to a "bit of a double count." He cautioned that many of the injured victims are still "fighting for their lives."
"This number could unfortunately increase again," Nigro said.
Smoke from the fire spread after the entry door to the apartment where the blaze began did not shut properly due to a faulty closing mechanism, Nigro said, allowing smoke to travel quickly through the building.
Yet Adams said that the city would "double down" on an educational campaign to teach children and city residents to keep doors closed in the event of a fire.
"Muscle memory is everything, and if we can drill that in we can save lives by closing the doors, not only in the city but across the entire globe, this painful moment can turn into a purposeful moment," Adams said.
Nigro said that fire department guidelines encourage people to shelter in place during fires in high-rise buildings, because fireproofing and city code requirements are meant to prevent flames and smoke from traveling upward. He said it was not yet clear where the majority of the fire's victims were found.
Investigators are looking into whether a "maintenance issue" led to an apartment door staying open, allowing smoke from a fire to travel quickly through a Bronx apartment building, Mayor Eric Adams said Monday.
“There may have been a maintenance issue with this door and that is going to be part of the ongoing investigation,” Adams said, speaking on ABC's "Good Morning America."
According to Adams, the doors in the building were equipped with required self-closing mechanisms, but the door in the apartment where the fire started may have had faulty hardware.
Kelly Magee, a spokesperson for the property owners of the building, said that all the building's doors have self-closing mechanisms, as required by city law. She said that in July 2021, building maintenance staff repaired a lock on the door to the unit where the fire began, and found no issues with the door's self-closing mechanism.
FDNY fire marshals confirmed Monday that the fire was caused by a faulty space heater, and that a smoke alarm was present and operational.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission announced Monday that it has opened an investigation into the fire, and said it has an investigator on scene.
The majority of the victims were people with roots in the African nation of the Gambia, according the Gambian ambassador to the U.S., Dawda Fadera, who spoke at the press briefing.
Fadera said that the country was in mourning.
"We are all related. Everybody knows everybody," Fadera said. "So our country is currently in a state of shock."
Adams said that he had spoken with President Joe Biden, and that the president had pledged support for the city in the wake of the fire.
Monday morning, Adams and schools comissioner David Banks toured the four city schools where the children who died in the fire were enrolled.
"They told us stories about each one of them, and my heart broke," Banks said.
The city's Office of Emergency Management has provided temporary housing for more than 60 building residents displaced by the fire in hotels around the Bronx.
"It does look like many of the apartments will be able to be reoccupied as the week goes on," Christina Farrell, the office's first deputy commissioner, said at the press briefing.
The fire inside the 19-story building Sunday morning is the city's deadliest in more than 30 years.
Speaking on "Mornings On 1" Monday, Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York President Andrew Ansbro said it was a devastating scene for both victims and firefighters.
"Absolutely horrific. I was on the scene yesterday, I spoke with some veteran firefighters who've been on the job 30 years, they said it was the worst fire of their careers," said Ansbro. "The members that operated yesterday are gonna live with this experience for the rest of their lives. It's gonna be horrible. It's horrible for everyone that was there - the families and the people that operated."
During the horrific scene Sunday, dozens of residents were placed on stretchers as fire crews helped them escape choking smoke that had spread to all 19 floors of their apartment building located at 333 E. 181st St. in Fordham Heights.
“God told me to take the stairs,” said tenant Michael Joseph. “It was so dark in there, I can't breathe. I actually made it down to the first floor and sent help for one of my closest friends."
“My son was inside the fire,” said Marta Sanchez. “He was in shock. He can't even talk."
The FDNY said more than 30 people had to be rushed to nearby hospitals with injuries that were life-threatening.
And as this tragic day progressed, fire officials confirmed that this was one of the deadliest fires in decades, with both children and adults being confirmed dead, due to smoke inhalation.
Gov. Kathy Hochul met with one mom who lost her entire family. Hochul vowed to set up a victims compensation fund to help devastated residents get back on their feet.
“It’s impossible to go into that room, where scores of families, who are in such grief, who are in pain. To see it in a mother’s eyes as I held her, who lost her entire family," Hochul said.
The five-alarm blaze broke out in a duplex apartment that stretched from the second to third floors, Nigro said.
Nigro said the people who were inside that apartment failed to close the door behind them, which allowed dangerous smoke to enter the hallway and go up to every floor, making it impossible for many residents to get out without help.
“It started in a malfunctioning electric space heater,” Nigro said. “That was the cause of the fire. That fire consumed that apartment which is on two floors and part of the hallway. The smoke spread throughout the building. Thus the tremendous loss of life and those fighting for their lives in hospitals all over the Bronx.”
The 911 for help came in just before 11 a.m. Sunday. Mayor Adams praised the quick work and bravery of firefighters who arrived within minutes and who came to the aid of residents on every floor of the 19-story building, even when their own safety was in jeopardy.
“Their oxygen tanks were empty and they still pushed through the smoke,” Adams said. “You can't do this if you don't feel attached to this city and this community. And I really want to thank them for putting their lives on the line to save.”
And while the American Red Cross has been helping displaced residents find hotels and more permanent accommodations, Mayor Adams is urging anyone who needs help to come forward.
Adams said the neighborhood is filled with immigrants, and he said regardless of their immigration status, no one who comes forward will be reported to ICE.
A spokesperson for Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC, the joint venture that owns the building, said there are no known issues with the smoke alarms and it appears that the fire alarm system worked as designed.
The spokesperson added that the joint venture is "working with the relevant housing agencies to expedite issuing tenant-based vouchers to affected residents. This will allow households to find appropriate housing matching the level of rental assistance they've received at Twin Park."
The Red Cross said as of Monday evening that they have housed 38 families, and that other families found lodging via family and friends, as well as community support. They said their casework team has registered 50 total families for services so far.
Nearby MS 391 was turned into a safe haven for families Sunday, serving as a place for warmth, shelter and to reunite and pray with loved ones.
The Red Cross is asking those impacted to reach out for temporary housing assistance at 1-877-733-2767.
If you are trying to located loved ones who live at the building, the city urges you to call 311 for that and more information.
Anyone who needs help with finding victim resources is asked to text 181STFIRE to the number 692692.