Space heater sparks deadliest NYC fire in decades, killing at least 19 Bronx building residents, 9 of them children

The deadliest New York City fire in decades killed at least 19 Bronx building residents Sunday, including nine children, FDNY sources said.

The five-alarm blaze broke out about 10:54 a.m. in a bedroom of a duplex apartment spanning the second and third floors of the 19-story tower in Fordham Heights.

The blaze was sparked by a malfunctioning electric space heater, FDNY officials said. Though officials said the heat in the building was functioning properly, the Bronx saw frigid temperatures dip into the high 20s early Sunday morning.

“This is a horrific, horrific, painful moment for the City of New York, and the impact of this fire is going to really bring a level of just pain and despair in our city,” Mayor Adams said at the scene. “The numbers are horrific.”

A woman is rescued by firefighters.
A woman is rescued by firefighters.

“This is going to be one of the worst fires we have witnessed during modern times in the City of New York,” the mayor added. He noted that hero firefighters kept pressing through the deadly smoke to search for victims even after their oxygen tanks ran out of air.

Firefighters arrived within three minutes, their ranks soon swelling to 200 to battle the blaze at 333 E. 181st St. near Tiebout Ave., FDNY officials said. It was brought under control at 1:26 p.m.

”They were met in the hallway with this fire,” FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said at the scene. “Very heavy smoke, very heavy fire.”

Firefighters hoisted a ladder to rescue people through their windows after a fire broke out inside a third-floor duplex apartment at 333 E. 181st St. in the Bronx Sunday.
Firefighters hoisted a ladder to rescue people through their windows after a fire broke out inside a third-floor duplex apartment at 333 E. 181st St. in the Bronx Sunday. 

“This smoke extended the entire height of the building — completely unusual,” Nigro added. “Members found victims on every floor, in stairwells, and were taking them out in cardiac and respiratory arrest.”

It didn’t have to be that bad, Nigro said.

“We’ve stressed this over and over, the door to that apartment was left open causing the fire to spread and the smoke to spread,” he said.

The building has no fire escapes and the stairwells meant to be used as emergency exits quickly filled with smoke, along with floors where stairwell doors were left open.

“There were certainly people trapped in their apartments all through this building, which is why our members did an unbelievable job of getting through every floor of this building and getting to these folks,” Nigro added added. “But some of them were already in arrest when we reached them.”

Trapped residents yelled for help from inside the burning building on E. 181st St. in the Bronx Sunday.
Trapped residents yelled for help from inside the burning building on E. 181st St. in the Bronx Sunday. 

Medics rushed 32 people with life-threatening injuries and three with serious injuries to five local hospitals, officials said. Nineteen people had minor injuries and were treated at the scene. All of the victims suffered severe smoke inhalation, Nigro said.

Nineteen victims have died, a high-ranking FDNY official said.

“That is unprecedented in our city,” Nigro said. “The last time we had a loss of life that may be this horrific was the Happy Land fire over 30 years ago, also here in the Bronx.”

On March 25, 1990, an arsonist used a can of gasoline to set fire to the Happy Land Social Club at 1959 Southern Blvd. in East Tremont. The resulting inferno killed 87 panic-stricken clubgoers, half of them younger than 25. It was the deadliest city blaze in 79 years.

After Sunday’s blaze broke out, Anthony Romero, 40, a resident of the 12th floor, woke up his seven months pregnant wife and two children.

“I walked to my door and opened it. A huge cloud of black smoke came in so I closed the door,” Romero said. “We put a wet towel under the door. I went to the back window and I checked and that’s when I saw the smoke coming out the third-floor apartment.”

Romero, who’s asthmatic, remained in his apartment until firefighters banged on the door, signaling it was safe for the family to evacuate.

The scene of the fire in the Bronx.
The scene of the fire in the Bronx.

“I had no choice, there was too much smoke in the hallways, there was no way I was gonna leave my apartment and make it from the 12th floor to the first floor and live. So just the smoke hitting me alone … I’m spitting out black, but I’m good.”

Romero recounted his neighbor’s grief as she was forced to leave her dog to die. He saw firefighters on each floor as his family made their way through thick smoke to the ground floor.

“It was black everywhere,” he said of the overwhelming smoke. “Black everywhere.”

Tysena Jacobs, a 15th-floor resident, was trapped in her apartment with two siblings.

“We couldn’t get out,” Jacobs, 69, said. “I called 911 three times, they tell us to put towels at the door but I couldn’t get to the door. It was too black. It was black, you couldn’t see nothing. So I had to put down a lot of towels at my bedroom door.”

Jacobs’ brother pushed an air conditioner out of a bedroom window in an attempt to get oxygen flowing through the apartment before firefighters searching for trapped residents found the siblings.

“I was praying to ask God to help us and get us out of this building safely,” Jacobs said. “I live here over 30 years. They have fires but nothing like this. This is the first time anything like this ever happened.”

Firefighters made dramatic rescues after a fire broke out inside the building on E. 181st St. in the Bronx.
Firefighters made dramatic rescues after a fire broke out inside the building on E. 181st St. in the Bronx. (Theodore Parisienne/for New York Daily News)

At BronxCare Health System, the former Bronx-Lebanon Hospital, a couple mourned the deaths of two of their five children.

Distraught father Mahamadou Toure tried to form sentences outside the hospital’s emergency room where his 5-old daughter and the girl’s teenage brother died.

“Right now my heart is very …,” Toure trailed off. “It’s OK. I give it to God.”

As an unconscious teenage neighbor was wheeled from the emergency room to be transferred to another hospital, Toure’s wife approached the gurney, screamed the girl’s name and shook her in an attempt to wake her.

Hours after the fire was put out, Ousman Tunkara, 28, stared up at the building’s 19th floor, where his 3-year-old niece lived. He learned from a family member the toddler did not survive the blaze.

“She was a baby,” Tunkara said. “I’m sad … I’m sad.”

Tunkara was still trying to get in touch with his sister and brother-in-law Sunday evening.

More than 40 people were rescued from the burning building, FDNY sources said.

The building includes multiple units converted into duplexes and has spaces hard to reach for firefighters. It was built in 1972, city records show.

“It was at a building that was built under federal guidelines way back when, so it’s not up to New York City fire codes,” said Andrew Ansbro, president of the the FDNY Uniformed Firefighters Association union.

He said the building design, particularly the “scissor stairs” where two stairways crisscross each other in the same stairwell, made it take longer to stretch hose through the building.

Public records show the building has multiple open violations for mouse and roach infestations, peeling lead paint and water leaks. One open complaint with the city Housing Preservation and Development Department makes reference to defective fire retardant material in a first-floor ceiling.

The building owner, Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC, told ABC News it is cooperating with the FDNY and other city agencies in the wake of the blaze.

A woman who lived in the apartment building reacts at the scene.
A woman who lived in the apartment building reacts at the scene.

“We are devastated by the unimaginable loss of life caused by this profound tragedy,” the company told the outlet.

“I am horrified by the devastating fire in the Bronx today,” Gov. Hochul said in a statement. “The entire State of New York stands with New York City.”

At a news conference at the scene Sunday night, Hochul said she will establish a victim compensation fund as she prepares the state’s budget and that the American Red Cross will be housing displaced residents in hotels.

Displaced families looking for help gathered in a public middle school next door to the burned-out building.

“It’s impossible to go into that room where scores of families were in such grief, were in pain,” Hochul said. “To see it in a mother’s eyes as I held her, who lost her entire family. It’s hard to fathom what they’re going through.”

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