Mayor Revises Bronx Fire Death Toll to 17, Cautions Count Could Still Rise

The smoke turned stairwells — the only method of flight in a building too tall for fire escapes — into dark, ash-choked horrors

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What to Know

  • At least 17 people are dead and many others still fighting for their lives after a raging space heater-sparked inferno tore through a 19-story Bronx apartment building on Monday
  • The smoke alarms went off, but many apparently didn't pay attention because there were frequent false alarms; officials say most of the fatalities were people found dead in hallways of smoke inhalation
  • The fire was NYC's deadliest since 1990 when 87 people died in an arson at the Happy Land social club, also in the Bronx. The borough was also home to a deadly apartment fire in 2017 that killed 13 and a 2007 fire, also started by a space heater, that killed nine

Up to 13 people remained in critical condition Monday, with many more hospitalized, after New York City's deadliest fire in three decades tore through a towering Bronx apartment complex, killing over a dozen. Eight were children.

The initial death toll has been lowered to 17, at least eight of those victims are children, Mayor Eric Adams announced Monday. In the immediate aftermath of Sunday's devastating blaze, city officials had confirmed 19 deaths connected to the fire.

Investigators determined that a malfunctioning electric space heater, plugged in to give extra heat on a cold morning, started the fire in the 19-story building on 181st Street early Sunday afternoon. A door left open in the burning apartment fueled the spread of flames and ultimately the devastating loss of life and property.

That apartment door, Fire Commissioner Dan Nigro elaborated upon Monday, wasn't functioning properly. Instead of closing automatically as city code and fire safety protocol stipulate, the door remained ajar after the unit's tenants escaped, leading to the fire's spread. A working smoke alarm was present.

The flames damaged only a small part of the building, but smoke escaped through that open door and billowed through stairwells and halls, trapping many people in their apartments and incapacitating others as they fled. Most of the deaths were due to smoke inhalation, and many of those victims were found in hallways.

Multiple limp children were seen being given oxygen after they were carried out. Evacuees had faces covered in soot. There were harrowing tales of survival, as some used curtains or sheets to make makeshift ropes for window escapes.

The mother said that the stranger stepped in to help her and her children, just as she was starting to lose hope. NBC New York's Adam Harding reports.

333 E. 181st Street fire

The fire originated in a duplex on the second and third floors of the building but never extended past the unit and the hallway nearest the apartment, officials said.

The smoke turned stairwells — the only method of flight in a building too tall for fire escapes — into dark, ash-choked horrors.

Building resident Sandra Clayton grabbed her dog Mocha and ran for her life when she saw the hallway fill with smoke and heard people screaming, “Get out! Get out!”

Clayton, 61, said she groped her way down a darkened stairway, clutching Mocha. The smoke was so black she couldn’t see, but she could hear neighbors wailing and crying nearby.

“I just ran down the steps as much as I could but people was falling all over me, screaming,” Clayton said from a hospital where she was treated for smoke inhalation.

In the commotion, her dog slipped from her grasp. It was later found dead in a stairwell.

Firefighters found victims on every floor, many in cardiac and respiratory arrest, Nigro noted at a Sunday press conference. Some could not escape because of the sheer volume of smoke, he said.

The building is equipped with smoke alarms, but several residents said they initially ignored them because alarms were so common in the 120-unit building.

Jose Henriquez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who lives on the 10th floor, said it seemed that's what happened when alarms started blaring Sunday.

“It seems like today, they went off but the people didn’t pay attention,” Henriquez said in Spanish.

He and his family stayed, wedging a wet towel beneath the door once they realized the smoke in the halls would overpower them if they tried to flee.

The city said that just hours after the fire that left 19 people dead and more than 60 people hurt, all the survivors have a warm place to sleep for the night, as an outpouring of support for the victims has already come in. NBC New York's Ida Siegal reports.

Luis Rosa said he also initially thought it was a false alarm. By the time he opened the door of his 13th-floor apartment, the smoke was so thick he couldn’t see down the hallway. “So I said, OK, we can’t run down the stairs because if we run down the stairs, we’re going to end up suffocating.”

“All we could do was wait,” he said.

The Red Cross is assisting at least 21 families displaced by the blaze.

NYC apartment fire investigation

An investigation into whether the extent of the tragedy could have been contained is underway, but fire and elected officials say the FDNY and other first responders did everything possible, risking their own lives, to minimize the loss of life.

Firefighters continued making rescues even after their air supplies ran out, Mayor Eric Adams said. He called them heroes, as did Gov. Kathy Hochul, who stood alongside the mayor as she pledged relief in whatever forms necessary.

Large, new apartment buildings in the city are required to have sprinkler systems and interior doors that swing shut automatically to contain smoke and deprive fires of oxygen, but those rules don't apply to thousands of the city's older buildings.

The fire was New York City's deadliest since 1990, when 87 people died in an arson at the Happy Land social club, also in the Bronx. The borough was also home to a deadly apartment building fire in 2017 that killed 13 people and a 2007 fire, also started by a space heater, that killed nine kids and one adult.

In Photos: Bronx Blaze, Worst NYC Fire in 30+ Years, Leaves Dozens Gravely Injured

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