The Bronx fire was the deadliest in the city in decades. Here's what made it so bad

Published January 10, 2022 at 8:16 AM EST
A firefighter carries a hose in front of a line of other first responders at the scene of a fire in a high-rise apartment building in the Bronx on Sunday.
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Emergency first responders remain at the scene after an intense fire at a 19-story residential building that erupted in the morning on Sunday in the Bronx borough of New York City.

Good morning,

Here are some of the top stories we're following today:

Bronx fire: More than 60 people were injured and at least 17people have died after a space heater caused a massive fire in a high-rise apartment building in New York City.

Djokovic's battle: An Australian court reinstated Novak Djokovic's visa, but it's still unclear whether the tennis star will be able to play in the Australian Open with a COVID-19 vaccine exemption.

Chicago schools: The city's public school system remains closed today in a dispute with the teachers union over COVID-19 protocols.

🎧 Also on Up First, our daily podcast, the U.S. and Russia are holding diplomatic talks today over Russia's growing troop presence on the Ukrainian border.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

(Rachel Treisman, Nell Clark, Dana Farrington and Danny Nett)

Coronavirus

How traditional death rituals in Black communities are changing during the pandemic

Posted January 10, 2022 at 11:50 AM EST

The pandemic has altered so much about Americans' lives, including what we do after a loved one dies.

During the worst of the pandemic, funeral homes faced high demand just as the pandemic slowed the U.S.' infrastructure to a near halt. Daily jobs for funeral homes like filing death certificates, getting needed cremation permits and arranging funeral receptions required more work, longer wait-times and sometimes even inventive solutions, like Zoom eulogies.

Those changes to death rituals have been most keenly felt in populations hit hardest by the pandemic, including among Black communities where funeral homes play an important role as a place where people come together.

Stephen Kemp, director of Kemp Funeral Home in Southfield, Mich., joined NPR's Ayesha Rascoe to discuss how the coronavirus has altered death traditions in the Black community.

Kemp says Black funeral homes have been integral to Black society since they began and that the pandemic is forcing them to adjust to their community's needs.

Listen here for the full conversation on Weekend Edition Sunday and read the highlights below.

On how funerals used to be a social ritual for African-Americans, but now many aspects of funerals are changing, including where they happen

In terms of historically going to churches, we that is way down— way, way, way down. So you're beginning to see a lot more funerals here at the funeral home versus traditional places like a church. What I tell people, "You didn't go to church your whole life. Why are you trying to have a traditional funeral now if he never seen the inside of a damn church?" Excuse my language. And what is now, we have them in parks and tents, in people's homes, in the backyard, and what traditionally has been the funeral has evolved into more of a celebration of life. I tell people, get pictures together, put them on a flash drive, play the person's favorite music. Even, you know, we've had Tupac.

On how repass, also know as the reception after a funeral, has changed

In terms of now in repass, what we were doing during the pandemic is I was catering boxes. If you remember in the civil rights [era], when we're on the buses or trains, when they didn't serve us, we had lunch boxes. Well, a local African-American restaurant around here, a soul restaurant makes a box with historic indications on the side and gives people the history of what we did. We serve those on the way out. So people take your box, take your takeout with you, take your juice and go on and we all still celebrate.

On the history of African-American funeral homes' role in society

As the last bastion of African-American minority business, we still support one another in that industry, because of our historical ties from the civil rights era. The funeral director was always the one that had the car, drove the civil rights person around. Even going back to the post-Civil War era, typically, white funeral directors took care of us, but they always put us in the basement. They always put us in the back room. The funerals weren't scheduled there. And then African-Americans decided to enter the business as well in Birmingham, in Selma, in those areas where they needed to march. What I always tell people is, "Who do you think paid the bail for those civil rights leaders who got put in jail for no reason down there?" Was always the funeral director. The clandestine meetings that needed to be held without infiltration would typically be held in, what a lot of people don't [know], funeral homes.

On what he's doing to help future generations as a funeral director

So I'm trying to give back to the younger generations. Monthly here we do a seminar and we talk about Medicare and Medicaid spending and planning for long-term care, because people spend so much or lose a lot of their generational wealth because of long-term care, because nursing homes can cause $6- or $7,000 a month and deplete seniors' savings in no time. Now does that have a lot to do with our business? I think it does, but mostly it is to help our community, and I think that's one of the things that we've got to maintain. And we've still going to do it, even in the younger generation, in my son's generation.

Entertainment

Pose's Mj Rodriguez made history as the first transgender actress to win a Golden Globe

Posted January 10, 2022 at 11:24 AM EST
A woman wearing an off-the-shoulder pink dress poses for the camera against a backdrop reading "POSE final season."
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Mj Rodriguez attends the FX's "Pose" Season 3 New York Premiere at Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 29, 2021, in New York City.

The Golden Globes were handed out in a private ceremony this year, after a series of scandals rocked the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and tarnished the award show's reputation.

Last night's low-key ceremony did have one standout moment, however: Pose's Mj Rodriguez took home the award for best television actress in a drama series, making history as the first transgender actress to win a Golden Globe.

While there were no televised announcements or acceptance speeches, Rodriguez gave an emotional speech on Instagram Live in which she thanked those who worked on the show and spoke of paving the way for others.

"This is for the LGBTQAI, Black, Latina, Asian, the many multi beautiful colors of the rainbow around the freaking world. This not just for me, this is for y'all," she said. "There are going to be so many young individuals — young, talented thriving individuals — that are going to be able to trail in and storm in through the door. This is for y'all."

Pose, which wrapped up its third and final season in June, tells the story of trans and queer people of color and the underground ballroom culture they cultivated in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s.

The groundbreaking show became "a hit for its bold depiction of joy and trauma of LGBTQ life amidst the backdrop of the AIDS crisis," as NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour put it. And it made TV history with the largest cast of transgender actors in series regular roles, according to FX.

Rodriguez played Blanca Evangelista, an HIV-positive ball competitor who left her ballroom "house" to start a new one from scratch. The nurturing house mother was at the center of the series, which has been hailed by critics but historically snubbed at awards shows. For instance, Rodriguez's Golden Globe was also Pose's first.

Since its start in 2018, Pose has received 20 Emmy nominations and four awards. In 2019, Billy Porter became the first openly gay Black man towin the best actor Emmy for his role in the show.

Pose cast members and fans have been vocal about the show's lack of recognition. In 2020, stars Indya Moore and Angelica Ross spoke out against the Emmys for overlooking the show's Black transgender cast in its list of nominees.

"Something abt trans ppl not being honored on a show abt trans ppl who created a culture to honor ourselves bc the world doesn't," Moore tweeted from their since-deleted account.

“I want you to know from the jump that these tears are not about an award or a nomination,” Ross said on Instagram at the time. “Ultimately, I need y’all to understand that I’m so tired — those of you who know me know I’m not just working on screen or behind screen but I’m working around the clock to get our society to value trans lives and Black trans lives.”

In a 2020 opinion piece for the Television Academy, Rodriguez wrote about the career challenges she faced as an Afro-Latina and called for more representation of Black and Latino communities behind and in front of the cameras, urging the Academy to give marginalized groups a seat at the table and recognize their hard work, art and talent.

Rodriguez made history last summer when she became the first openly transgender performer (and third transgender actor ever) to be nominated for a lead acting Emmy, which she ultimately did not win.

In a 2018 interview with NPR, Rodriguez described her character as "this rambunctious, very, very nurturing, compassionate, a little bit hardheaded, but ambitious spirit." She spoke about the parts of Blanca's experience that bore similarities to her own, like being ostracized from their community but choosing to move forward and lift others up.

"There were moments where I was called many derogatory names. I've gotten into a couple of fights. People have jumped me," Rodriguez said. "You know, I've had a lot of things that have happened to me, but I look past those things now and now I'm moving forward and I always believe that the experiences that you go through are what make you stronger and what help you push forward through life."

She also reflected on the importance of representation and resilience — and the work that still needs to be done — in an episode of It's Been A Minute With Sam Sanders last year, as the series came to a close. (Some have already criticized the symbolism of Rodriguez's historic win coming during a year without a televised ceremony.)

Sunday's quiet ceremony had several other big winners, which you can see here.

On the silver screen: Steven Spielberg's West Side Story won best motion picture musical or comedy, with actors Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose taking home awards too. Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog won best motion picture drama, and she won for best director.

Television's victors included Succession, Hacks and The Underground Railroad.

Climate

U.S. greenhouse gas emissions jumped in 2021, a threat to climate goals

Posted January 10, 2022 at 11:09 AM EST
Trucks cross the Vincent Thomas Bridge above a container ship at the Port of Los Angeles on November 30, 2021 in San Pedro, California.
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Trucks cross the Vincent Thomas Bridge above a container ship at the Port of Los Angeles on November 30, 2021 in San Pedro, California.

U.S. greenhouse gas emissions rose by 6.2% last year compared to 2020, according to new data released Monday.

People who stayed home and used less fossil fuels in the first year of the pandemic returned to some of their old habits last year, as vaccines became widely available and the economy rebounded.

Transportation, particularly for moving freight to meet high demand for consumer products, saw the steepest increase in climate-warming emissions in 2021, though it dropped off in the second half of the year as breakthrough COVID-19 cases rose and new variants spread. Also contributing to the increase was a 17% spike in coal generation, driven by high natural gas prices.

The jump in emissions shows that the country isn’t on track to meet commitments under the Paris climate agreement, according to the research firm Rhodium Group, which released the data.

“We need to see annual emission reductions of around 5% each year, and this year we saw emissions grow over 6%,” said Kate Larsen of the Rhodium Group.

Still, the firm found that U.S. emissions in 2021 remained 5% below 2019 levels.

President Biden’s marquee Build Back Better legislation would have allocated billions of dollars for clean energy as the administration works to drastically reduce emissions, but West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s rejection of the bill last month likely doomed it.

International

The U.S. and Russia are meeting in Geneva, with high stakes and low expectations

Posted January 10, 2022 at 10:15 AM EST
A woman and man wearing suits and face masks pose in front of red, white and blue American and Russian flags.
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Reuters POOL
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov attend security talks at the United States Mission in Geneva on Monday.

U.S. diplomats are meeting with their Russian counterparts today in Geneva.

The expectations are low: Russia has said it will not make concessions under pressure and indicated the talks might end early, while the U.S. says no breakthroughs are expected.

But the stakes are high: Russia has amassed some 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine, raising the possibility of yet another invasion, like Russia's seizure of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula back in 2014. Moscow has also carried out cyberattacks against Ukraine in recent years and could do so again. Plus, Russia has just sent troops to neighboring Kazakhstan, amid a wave of popular unrest there.

The U.S., led by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, is meeting with Russians today in Geneva. The U.S. delegation will be joined by its European allies for more meetings on Wednesday and Thursday.

NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre walked us through the basics and the bigger picture on Morning Edition. He calls it a big week for diplomacy, noting "it's a genuinely tense moment and the sides are very far apart."

On the situation in Ukraine

The Russian buildup of tanks, armored vehicles and artillery could be preparation for a major attack — or brinksmanship from Russian President Vladimir Putin just trying to win diplomatic concessions.

Myre says that while Putin's immediate plans are unpredictable, the long-term picture is pretty clear: "He thinks Ukraine is really part of Russia's sphere of influence and he sees it drifting away, becoming more aligned with the West."

🔊 Here's more from Myre and NPR's cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin about what Russia could do online and on the ground.

Putin wrote a long essay last year saying that Russia and Ukraine are really just one country. Myre says that while that's been true at times in their 1,000-year history, Ukraine now has its own culture, language and identity — and, for more than three decades, its independence.

Putin's big fear is that Ukraine will become a close partner or member of NATO, and more broadly, he wants NATO to pull back from Eastern Europe. Myre points out that Putin's actions are actually achieving the opposite, by turning Ukrainians away from Russia.

On the situation in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan has been seeing large-scale, bloody protests against its authoritarian government for the past week. Read more about those here.

Russia has now sent in about 2,500 troops to help. It's not a huge force, but Myre says it's notable in context: Kazakhstan is just one of several former Soviet republics to have experienced unrest in recent years.

"Putin is often seen as this skillful operator who outmaneuvers his rivals, but he's now been in power for more than 20 years, and his closest allies in the former Soviet republics have these autocratic governments that are shaky and subject to unrest," Myre says. "So if you're in the Kremlin and looking out, the region is looking pretty unsettled."

🔊 NPR's Charles Maynes spoke to Morning Edition about the latest on Russia's involvement in Kazakhstan. Listen to that here.

Entertainment

The Golden Globes, tarnished by scandal, were awarded privately this year

Posted January 10, 2022 at 9:38 AM EST
A collection of Golden Globe statues sits in front of a blue background.
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Golden Globes are seen during the 79th Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton on Sunday in Beverly Hills, California.

This year's Golden Globe Awards weren't televised or even streamed online.

There was no red carpet, no press area, no star-studded audience or played-out acceptance speeches. In fact, only two bona-fide celebrities made appearances, in pre-recorded videos showed online last night: Jamie Lee Curtis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Reporters and fans had to track down the list of winners on the ceremony's website and in a Twitter thread.

The scaled-back ceremony wasn't due to the omicron surge, which is postponing the Grammys and other entertainment shows. It was in response to scandals that rocked the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and tarnished the Globes.

NPR arts correspondent Mandalit del Barco, who covers the event every year, spoke to Morning Edition about this unusual rendition and the reckoning that preceded it. Take a listen.

She explains that in the "before times," the Globes were known as the fun party that kicked off Hollywood awards season, with glamorous stars boozing it up, and famous hosts roasting their peers and members of the HFPA — which began hosting the ceremony in 1944. This time around, it was basically a private party for the HFPA, which has been plagued by a series of scandals.

What the backlash was about

Del Barco explains that critics have for years accused HFPA members of getting "wined and dined" ahead of the Globes, calling their journalistic legitimacy into question. The small group of less than 100 people seemed to hold a lot of power in Hollywood.

Then came the lawsuits by journalists who said they weren't allowed to join the group, and a Los Angeles Times investigation published just before last year's ceremony in which current and former members accused the organization of corruption. It denied many of those allegations but couldn't deny another fact made public by the investigation: The organization had no Black members.

That lack of diversity launched a backlash in which studios, publicists and major celebrities promised to boycott the Globes. It also led to some changes in the HFPA, which has invited 21 new members over the last year (six of whom are Black), signed a five-year partnership with the NAACP, changed its bylaws and required all members to sign a new code of conduct.

Read more from NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans about how despite this year's spate of uncontroversial nominees, the Golden Globes may have permanently lost their luster.

Sports

Djokovic wins his visa appeal to stay in Australia — for now

Posted January 10, 2022 at 9:18 AM EST

An Australian judge reinstated Novak Djokovic’s visa Monday, moving the tennis star one step closer to playing in the Australian Open later this month. But the immigration minister’s office says he could still revoke Djokovic’s visa over his vaccination status.

Judge Anthony Kelly agreed that before leaving for the Melbourne tournament, Djokovic had done what was asked of him by documenting his request for an exemption. He also said that the Australian Border Force had acted too quickly in ordering the Serbian to leave the country without giving him adequate time to respond.

Shortly after the ruling, Djokovic posted a photo of himself at a tennis court, saying he was “pleased and grateful” for the judge’s action. He added that he still intends to play in the Grand Slam tournament.

“Despite all that has happened in the past week, I want to stay and to try to compete at the Australian Open. I remain focused on that. I flew here to play at one of the most important events we have in front of the amazing fans.”

In hearing the case, Kelly said, he was “agitated” about the tennis star’s treatment, asking in court, “What more could this man have done?” according to Australia’s ABC.

“Djokovic’s lawyers really dominated the proceedings in the federal court here in Australia” in making their case against the government, Tom Maddocks of the ABC told NPR’s Morning Edition.

As he restored Djokovic’s visa, Kelly also said he should be released from hotel quarantine. But Immigration Minister Alex Hawke could still use his discretionary power to oust Djokovic — and if he does so, that order could bar the world’s No. 1 tennis player from Australia for three years.

The case has become a sensation in Australia, where protesters and counterprotesters have massed outside the building where Djokovic was cooped up for several days. After the judge’s ruling, chaos broke out near the office of Djokovic's lawyer in Melbourne.

“There was a huge mob of Serbian fans waiting outside,” Maddocks said. “They mobbed the car which came out of this building. Police deployed pepper spray. There were some quite ugly scenes, to be honest. We're unsure if Novak Djokovic was inside that car.”

Federal officials had been set to deport Djokovic, who arrived in Australia unvaccinated last week. The Serbian said he had been granted a medical exemption, igniting fury in the country where more than 91% of the adult population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The case quickly bloomed beyond the realm of local, state and tournament officials, rising to the top of the political chain.

"There should be no special rules for Novak Djokovic at all. None whatsoever,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said just before the tennis player’s visa was canceled late last week.

Djokovic has won the past three editions of the Australian Open. The 2022 tournament starts one week from today and runs through Jan. 30.

Bob Saget

Bob Saget's co-stars and fellow comics are remembering his humor and kindness

Posted January 10, 2022 at 8:25 AM EST
Bob Saget, wearing a leather jacket and glasses, sits in a chair and leans to the side while holding a microphone.
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Bob Saget pictured at Build Studio on April 23, 2019 in New York City.

Actors and comedians are remembering one of their own today: Bob Saget, whose death at age 65 was announced on Sunday.

The Orange County Sheriff's Office in Florida said deputies were called to the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando after an unresponsive man was found in a hotel room. They identified the man as Saget and said he was pronounced dead on the scene, with no signs of foul play or drug use.

Saget was on tour and had done an hourslong set near Jacksonville the day before, saying in a tweet that he had "loved tonight's show."

Saget was a prominent presence on American TV screens throughout the 1990s, well-known as the patriarch on ABC's beloved Full House and the host of America's Funniest Home Videos. He also had credits as a director and a long career in stand-up comedy — with famously dirty jokes that stood in stark contrast to his wholesome TV Dad persona.

Read NPR's remembrance or listen to it here.

Here are some of the tributes pouring in:

Coronavirus

Schools are still closed in Chicago, as teachers and the city clash over COVID rules

Posted January 10, 2022 at 8:16 AM EST
A person with a backpack pushes through a door reading "Chicago Public Schools". Next to the door is a sign that says "Please wear a face mask before entering."
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The entrance of the headquarters for Chicago Public Schools.

Public school students in Chicago aren't learning again today, as a bitter stand-off between city officials and teachers means canceled classes for the fourth day.

Over 300,000 students are out of class in the nation's third largest school district as negotiations continue for a return to teaching. Member station reporter Sarah Karp from WBEZ has been following the stalemate and joinedMorning Editionwith the latest.

Public schools have been out of session in the city since last Wednesday, after the Chicago Teachers Union voted to refuse in-person work due to the surge of COVID-19 cases, and the school district prevented teachers from working remotely in response.

The teachers are calling for remote learning for the next week and to put in place a trigger for when severe COVID-19 rates would switch the whole district to virtual classes, Karp reports.

But the school district and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot have doubled down on their stance that in-person schooling is still safe for students and staff and added safety measures aren't needed.

Meanwhile, classes aren't happening in-person or virtually — and parents aren't happy.

Parent Shekita Dickins doesn't understand why the district isn't allowing virtual classes during dispute. "The babies are the ones missing out right now," Dickins told WBEZ.

COVID cases are rising across the country as omicron spreads, including in Chicago where cases were up 16% last week compared to the week before.

Read more from WBEZ's Sarah Karp here.

Bronx fire

The Bronx apartment fire appears to be New York City's deadliest in 3 decades

Updated January 10, 2022 at 12:52 PM EST
Posted January 10, 2022 at 8:16 AM EST
New York City firefighters stand outside a tall brown apartment building.
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Emergency first responders remain at the scene after an intense fire at a 19-story residential building that erupted on Sunday morning in the Bronx borough of New York City.

Sunday's fire at an apartment complex in the Bronx killed at least 17 people — including eight children — and injured more than 60.

Officials are now investigating whether the building was following fire safety laws, and displaced survivors are staying in temporary shelters.

New York City Fire Department Commissioner Daniel Nigro said the city hasn't seen such a deadly blaze since 87 people died after an intentionally set fire at the Happy Land Social Club in 1990.

WNYC's Jake Offenhartz joined Morning Edition to discuss what we know so far about the fire and the people it's affecting. Listen here and read the highlights below.

How the blaze started and spread

Nigro said the fire was caused by a malfunctioning portable space heater, which was located in a bedroom of a two-story apartment that spanned the second and third floors of the 19-story building.

The door to the burning apartment and the hallway were left open, which officials say allowed smoke to travel through almost the entire building and contributed to the loss of life. All of the injuries were due to severe smoke inhalation.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams appeared to shift blame away from the residents of the apartment in several TV interviews on Monday morning.

"It's almost muscle memory that you flee an apartment and sometimes you forget about closing the door," he told Fox 5 NY. "That's why we're going to double down on the 'closing the door' PSA that I knew as a child, and we want other generations to understand that."

He told Good Morning America that there is a city law requiring apartment doors to close automatically.

"It may have been a maintenance issue with this door, and that is going to be part of this ongoing investigation," he added.

People who spoke to Offenhartz said they were OK if they stayed inside their apartments and barricaded their doors, but many residents tried to evacuate, and some died in the smoke-filled hallways.

One resident, Ken Otisi, described the smoke as "pitch-black, thick, chalky smoke, the type of smoke that you can't breathe." He said he waited in his apartment for hours, and when he was finally able to leave, he saw multiple people and pets unconscious in the hallway.

What safeguards were — and were not — in the building

The apartment is an affordable housing complex, built for low- to moderate-income tenants with state money in 1972.

Like many high-rises built in that era, it had no fire escapes — residents could only leave the building through the inside hallways. Offenhartz also said there weren't sprinklers, as no local laws required them in residential buildings at the time of its creation.

He said the building also had some outstanding violations for things like rodents and a broken elevator, and that residents had reported fire alarms that were frequently ringing and often ignored.

Officials say they are looking into all of these things as they investigate whether the building was following fire safety laws.

Who lived in the building

The complex was home to many immigrants, including many from Gambia and the West African Muslim community. New York City Mayor Eric Adams said the city will coordinate with faith leaders to ensure they respect Islamic burial rites.

Many survivors are in shock. Offenhartz said he spoke with one woman who had glass in her hand from punching out a window.

The Red Cross is providing emergency shelter to those who were displaced, and city officials say they will find residents long-term housing if they can't return to the building.

There are also promises being made at the state and federal level: New York Gov. Kathy Hochul says she will establish a victims' compensation fund, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., says he will offer housing, tax and immigration assistance.

Read more from NPR and WNYC's Gothamist. The city is raising funds for victims here.