'Trapped': Bronx apartment resident recalls harrowing escape from fire that left 19 dead

  • Several survivors were in critical condition and authorities warned the death toll could rise.
  • A malfunctioning space heater apparently sparked the 5-alarm fire.
  • The building is equipped with smoke alarms, but several residents said ignored the warning because the alarms go off so often.

NEW YORK — Cleanup crews in white suits cleared debris and trash Monday from the high-rise Bronx apartment building where choking smoke from an accidental blaze a day earlier killed 19 people, including nine children.

Surrounding blocks were closed off Monday, the streets lined with police and fire vehicles. A small group of local clergy held a vigil in front of the building Monday.

“They lost something but Lord God we know you can give them more,” the Rev. Kevin McCall prayed.

Dozens of people remained hospitalized from the nation’s most deadly apartment fire in almost 40 years. Thirteen survivors were in critical condition, and authorities warned the death toll could rise. 

A malfunctioning space heater apparently sparked the 5-alarm fire Saturday in the 19-story building, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.

Mayor Eric Adams, who described the blaze as one of the “worst fires in modern times,” ordered flags to remain at half staff until sunset Wednesday in remembrance of the victims.

“This is a horrific day for all New Yorkers if not throughout the entire country,” Adams said Monday on “Good Morning America.”

“We just want, right now, to give the families the support they deserve.”

US RESIDENTIAL FIRES HAVE DECLINED: Bronx blaze is a reminder how dangerous they can be.

Resident: ‘I was scared to death’

Karen Dejesus, 54, was just a few doors down from the fire on the third floor. When the upstairs of her apartment began filling with smoke she started grabbing towels to try to protect her things. 

“Next thing I heard was the firemen breaking my door,” said Dejesus, who climbed out her window on a fire ladder to escape the blaze and smoke. “I was scared to death. I was trying to hold onto the firefighters. That’s a scary situation, but you have to get out to save your life.”

Dejesus was back at the building Monday morning trying to get information about when she might be able to get back inside. She was allowed to grab a few things Sunday evening and said the third floor was “like a war zone.”

“It was pitch black. There’s water everywhere.”

Dejesus has lived in the building for 18 years. She said the fire alarms went off so regularly that it was like “second nature to us.” But when she started to see the smoke and heard people yelling for help, she realized the fire was real.

“I can see the flames. I can see the smoke coming into my apartment. You’re being trapped somewhere,” she said as she described the scene.

Dejesus said her doors didn’t close automatically and she didn’t know whether any of the buildings doors did. 

“I just thank God that I’m here and my family is OK.”

14 of the 120 apartments ordered vacated

A preliminary investigation found that the fire did not affect the structural integrity of the building, said Andrew Rudansky, a spokesman for the city Department of Buildings.

Still, the agency issued a partial vacate order that applies to 14 fire-damaged apartments on the third floor of the building. Forensic engineers from the agency were at the building on Monday continuing to investigate, Rudansky said.

Space heater sparked 5-alarm fire

Nigro said the fire “started in a malfunctioning electric space heater” in a bedroom of a duplex apartment on the second and third floors of the 19-story Twin Parks North West complex in the West Bronx. Fire officials say the space heater may have been running uninterrupted for several days to provide supplemental warmth even though the building’s heat was working in the apartment.

The door of the apartment was left open, allowing smoke to quickly spread throughout the building, Nigro said. Trapped residents broke windows for air and stuffed wet towels under doors to stave off the smoke as it rose through the building

Smoke, not flames, responsible for most injuries

Nigro said 63 people were injured by “severe smoke inhalation” and that 32 were admitted to five area hospitals. The flames were confined to two floors, but smoke escaped through the apartment’s open door and darkened stairwells with a thick, unbreathable fog. The city requires doors to self-close, and Adams said in an interview on CNN that the Twin Parks building had such doors. Investigators are trying to determine why that door did not close, he said.

The death toll could rise, he said.

“We have several people in critical condition right now,” Adams said Monday on CNN. “We pray to God they are able to pull through.”

Twin Parks has smoke alarms but no sprinklers

The building is equipped with smoke alarms, but several residents said they ignored the warning because the alarms go off so often in the 120-unit building. Large, new apartment buildings in the city are required to have sprinkler systems, but those rules don’t apply to thousands of the city’s older buildings. 

“To my knowledge, there was no sprinkler (systems),” said Andrew Ansbro, the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association. He said the building had a fire 35 years ago.

The Twin Parks complex was built in 1973 as part of a project to build modern, affordable housing in the Bronx.

HOW IT HAPPENED: Malfunctioning space heater sparked Bronx fire, city’s deadliest blaze in decades

Deadliest fire since 1990’s Happy Land social club blaze

The fire was the city’s deadliest since 1990, when 87 people died in an arson at the Happy Land social club, also in the Bronx. That fire, however, was ruled an arson and the man convicted of igniting it, Julio González, was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Earlier that day González had a fierce argument with his girlfriend, who worked at the club. Authorities said González, who died in prison, also blocked the club’s only exit.

Bronx fire killed 13 in 2017

The borough was also home to a deadly apartment building fire in 2017 that killed 13 people. That fire was able to spread throughout the building when the door to an apartment was left open. In 2018, City Council passed ordinances requiring self-closing doors and child-safety knobs in apartment buildings, hotels, nursing homes and other multiple dwelling units that open into corridors or stairways. Owners were required to install self-closing doors as of July 2021.

Heroism in face of tragedy

Adams credited residents of the building for helping each other to safety, showing “who we are as New Yorkers.” Nigro said firefighters risked their lives as they rushed through the smoke, finding victims on every floor, many in cardiac and respiratory arrest.

“Their oxygen tanks were empty and they still pushed through the smoke,” Adams said.

Building’s owners ‘devastated,’ promise to cooperate with probe

The building’s owner, Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC, issued a statement saying the firm was cooperating fully with the investigation.

“We are devastated by the unimaginable loss of life caused by this profound tragedy,” the statement read. “We are cooperating fully with the Fire Department and other city agencies as they investigate its cause, and we are doing all we can to assist our residents. Our thoughts are with the families and friends of those who lost their lives or were injured, and we are here to support them as we recover from this horrific fire.”

Bacon reported from Arlington, Va. Contributing: Kevin McCoy, Jordan Mendoza and Cady Stanton, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

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