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A fire in a Bronx apartment building has killed 17 people, including eight children. Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images

Bronx apartment fire kills 17, leaves many more injured

The tragedy is the second fire-related mass casualty event to occur in the last five days in the Northeast.

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A malfunctioning electric space heater in a bedroom was the source of an apartment building fire in the Bronx on Sunday, Jan. 9 that killed 17 people, including eight children. 

The building had a large Muslim population, with many immigrants from the West African nation of Gambia. The Gambian Youth Organization’s GoFundMe page has already surpassed their fundraising goal of 200,000, and raised over $500,000 for the affected individuals. 

The Red Cross has provided emergency housing to 22 families, representing 56 adults and 25 children. 

Mayor Eric Adams said on Monday that it is one of the worst fires in New York City’s history. Adams revised the death toll down from the originally reported 19, saying it was an evolving situation. On Sunday, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said 32 people had been transported to hospitals with life-threatening conditions. 

Now, the building’s fire alarms and a series of open doors are on investigator’s radar as they look into the second major deadly fire in a week in the Northeast. 

"We are investigating where everyone was found, how the smoke traveled, but certainly the marshals have determined through physical evidence and through firsthand accounts by the residents that this fire started in the bedroom, in a portable electric heater,” Adams said Sunday. 

The five-alarm fire started shortly before 11 a.m., first consuming a bedroom, then spreading throughout the entire duplex apartment on the second and third floors of the 19-story building. 

“The heat was on in the building. This (space heater) was being used to supplement the building heat. There were smoke alarms throughout the building. The first call that came in was due to a neighbor hearing the smoke alarm and looking and seeing the smoke and calling,” Nigro told CNN

Nigro explained that when residents left the unit, the apartment door was left open, allowing smoke and fire to spread. 

About 200 members of the FDNY responded to the fire at 333 East 181st Street and arrived within three minutes of getting an emergency call. Nigro said the team found victims “on every floor in stairways,” and many of them were in cardiac and respiratory arrest. 

“It was a very difficult job for our members. Their air tanks contained a certain amount of air — they ran out of air, many of our members — and they continued working to try to get as many people out as they could,” he said. 

Karen Dejesus, a tenant of the building, was rescued by firefighters who broke down her door to save herself, her granddaughter and her son. She told CNN that fire alarms go off in the building often. 

“So many of us were used to hearing that fire alarm go off so it was like second nature to use. Not until I actually seen the smoke coming in the door, I realized it was a real fire and I heard people yelling ‘help, help, help,” Dejesus said. 

Congressman Ritchie Torres, who represents residents of the apartment building, said that this tragic fire highlights the need for federal investment in affordable housing. 

“Many of these buildings are old. Not every apartment has a fire alarm. Most of these buildings have no sprinkler system. And so the risk of a fire is much higher in lower-income neighborhoods in the Bronx than it might be elsewhere in the city or in the country,” Torres told MSNBC

The Bronx has gone through five other serious fires in recent decades — the most deadly in 1990, when 87 people died at the Happy Land social club. In 2007, 10 people, nine of them children, were killed in a fire in a residence after a space heater cord overheated. 

“Between 1999-2019 in the U.S., Black people were killed in “accidental” residential fires at more than twice the rate of white people. Their deaths are not accidents but the direct result of infrastructural negligence,” author Jessie Singer tweeted. 

Singer added that regardless of the cause of the incident, the focus should be on the residential conditions “that made the fire not survivable.” 

Last week’s tragic Philadelphia house fire revealed that 18 people had been living inside one four-bedroom public housing unit. 

Caleb Jones, a therapist who had worked with two of the children that lived in the unit, said that the family had wanted to move to a larger home for years, but they were among 40,000 on a waiting list for public housing. 

“I know it’s a freak accident, a fire. But them being in that situation was systemic,” Jones told the New York Times

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