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The fire killed 17 people. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Owners of apartment in deadly Bronx fire sued by affected families

The lawsuit alleges that the deaths of 17 people in the blaze happened because of safety violations.

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Several families whose loved ones died or were injured while trying to escape a smoke-filled Bronx apartment sued the owners on Tuesday, Feb. 8, alleging that the deaths of 17 people was a result of safety violations. 

The five lawsuits were filed on behalf of the families by civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who has previously represented the families of Trayvon Martin and George Floyd. 

“We have a lot of the families who paid such a tragic loss in the apartment fire,” Crump said during a news conference outside the building, saying violations of city safety provisions “caused unspeakable loss of life and injury to these families, mostly from Africa.” 

On the morning of Jan. 9, a malfunctioning electric space heater started the blaze. While the fire damaged only a small part of the building, it produced corrosive smoke that rapidly consumed the complex. The smoke rose through a stairwell of the 19-story building and killed people as they tried to flee. 

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

The lawsuits name Bronx Park Phase III Preservation, the Bronx Phase III Housing Co. and three investment groups as defendants. They are seeking to recover damages for the victims and their families, stating that they sustained “severe personal injuries, emotional distress, and/or property damage.” 

As of now, the lawsuits do not specify monetary damages or specific safety violations. But according to Larry Goldhirsch, another attorney for the families, these details will be identified in the coming weeks.

During Tuesday’s conference, lawyers cited a lack of adequate heating and issues with windows that could not open and doors that were meant to be self-closing as alleged code violations that they say contributed to the wrongful deaths 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,” Goldhirsch said. 

A spokesperson for the building’s owners denied responsibility, insisting that the facts will show the allegations to be false. 

Several relatives of the fire victims spoke at the news conference to express frustration over the uncertainties caused by the fire as they search for new places to live. 

“What happened on Jan. 9 was very devastating and tragic, and very unexpected, and could have been avoided. I lost my sister in the fire. She was trying to come down to save my family,” said Fatima Janneh, who lost her 27-year-old sister Sera, to the fire.  

“We need justice for the families that lost people, as well as the other tenants in the building. We’re all victims to what happened here,” Janneh said.

The plaintiffs include the mother of a two-year-old boy who died and parents who lost their 12-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. They also include a 20-year-old mother whose three-month old son was hospitalized.

Many residents were immigrants from Gambia, West Africa. Their shared origins, with some of them coming from the same village, fostered a close-knit community. 

Faith Touray, who spent 23 years in the building, said many residents are still living in hotel rooms a month after the tragedy, as they have “no real viable options of places” to live.” 

“We may be Black and Brown and African and immigrants, but we’re working-class people. 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,” Touray said. 

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