Officials investigate deadly Bronx fire that killed 17 people
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Details are still emerging from the deadly fire in a Bronx high-rise yesterday morning. Authorities now say 17 people were killed, nine adults and eight children. A space heater started the blaze, which quickly filled the building with deadly smoke. NPR's Quil Lawrence is in the Bronx and joins us on the line.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: What's it like there outside the building today?
LAWRENCE: Well, all day, families were coming back in a trickle from the hotels they were housed at by the Red Cross overnight. And several told me about escaping through the fire, through down the stairwells in darkness caused by this thick, black smoke even though it was the middle of the day. I spoke with one woman, Karen Dejesus, who was across the hall on the third story from the fire where it started. And she talked about trying to stop the smoke coming in from under her door with wet towels.
KAREN DEJESUS: My son was telling me to get towels and stuff. But by the time I tried to go get towels, the smoke was in. It was coming down the stairs. So we ran to the back, and next thing I know, I heard the firemen break in my door. They were breaking my door and things. They came in to get me my granddaughter and my son. And that window right there by the trees right here - that's the window that I climbed out of.
SHAPIRO: That sounds harrowing. Mayor Eric Adams was there again today. This capped off his first week on the job. What did he say?
LAWRENCE: He'd spent the morning at these local schools and had just heartbreaking conversations with the teachers of all eight of the children who were so far confirmed dead. He talked about diversity in the Bronx and said that this is a global tragedy. The Gambian ambassador actually came up from Washington, D.C., to be at the press conference with the mayor because many of the victims were originally from West Africa. Adams called the response heroic. He talked about the E.R. workers who were already stressed out by COVID to the 200 first responders who came to help with the blaze.
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ERIC ADAMS: We also witnessed a high level of heroism through those first responders - the EMS, the firefighters - I will say this over and over again - watching them go in the building even without having a full air tank, still pushing through the dark smoke in rescuing families in this building.
SHAPIRO: Quil, tell us about the kind of help people are being offered. You mentioned the Red Cross is providing hotel rooms. What else?
LAWRENCE: Yeah. Well, there's state and city authorities on scene. They all promise not to leave these families out in the cold. Mayor Adams said that President Biden even called to make sure that the city is getting all the help it needs. It appears that the 120 apartments worth of families all were given hotel rooms last night. But - and some of the apartments are actually apparently in good enough shape that they will be able to return to them. Others were completely destroyed by the smoke.
The building is privately owned, but a lot of people there get housing assistance. And officials were saying they were going to make sure that these housing vouchers would be cross-honored so these people would be able to find new homes. But it's a very complicated system. It's not always well-communicated. I heard at least four languages spoken outside the building today. These are vulnerable people. They need housing on the coldest week so far in this New York City winter. And some of them are still in shock. I spoke with a man who was - he was still trying to locate his younger brother's whole family 24 hours later, and he fears the worst.
SHAPIRO: I mentioned that a space heater started this fire. So what lessons are being taken from this about what can be done to prevent tragedies like this in the future?
LAWRENCE: Yeah. So there are two things - this space heater and also automatic doors in the building. The first question people are asking is, if the heat in the building was really working, then why would people have needed these space heaters, which can be very dangerous? And also, if the apartment doors had closed automatically like they're supposed to, then this fire couldn't have spread. It seems that the apartment where the fire was - that door didn't close automatically. At least one other stairwell door on the 15th floor didn't close automatically. If these problems had been reported to the landlord and the landlord did nothing to fix them, then there could be some liability there. But the mayor says the investigation is still ongoing. We're going to need to follow to make sure that these people do get the help that was promised to them.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence at the scene of that devastating fire in the Bronx.
Thank you, Quil.
LAWRENCE: Thanks, Ari.
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