Officials who are trying to piece together how a fire in a Bronx high-rise was able to kill 19 people—including nine children—believe a door may have malfunctioned by staying open and allowing thick smoke to spread through the building, New York City Mayor Eric Adams said Monday.
The fire appears to have been sparked by a space-heater that officials believe had been running for several days without a break. The building’s heating was working, officials told The New York Times, but the residents of one apartment may have used the space-heater for extra warmth.
The fire was largely contained on the third-floor, but the thick black smoke from the initial space-heater fire then billowed throughout the apartment block, killing at least 19 of its residents. Adams told 1010 WINS on Monday morning: “It was the smoke that took these lives, not the fire itself.”
The mayor also warned that the death toll could still rise.
The Times reports that fire officials have a working theory that the door of the third-floor apartment did not close behind the residents as they fled their home, allowing the smoke to spread and causing the fatalities. City law requires apartment doors to automatically close for fire safety, but something appears to have stopped that from happening.
“It appears the ability to have the smoke spread is due to the door being open,” Adams said on Good Morning America. “There may have been a maintenance issue with this door and that is going to be part of the ongoing investigation.” He later told CNN: “The doors in the building did have self-closing mechanisms. We are just looking at that specific door.”
Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said Sunday that another door may have also been open from the stairwell to an upper floor, allowing the smoke to rise upwards throughout the building. “Smoke and heat travel upward, that we know—that’s what happened here,” he said. “The smoke spread throughout the building, thus, the tremendous loss of life and other people fighting for their lives right now in hospitals all over the Bronx.”
Officials confirmed Monday that 13 people remain in critical condition after the fire, and Adams said many victims are Muslim immigrants from the West African nation of Gambia. The Gambian Youth Organization, based next to the building where the blaze happened, has raised over $300,000 in direct relief for families affected by the fire.
Pope Francis offered his condolences to victims of the “devastating” fire, writing a Monday telegram to Cardinal Timothy Dolan offering “heartfelt condolences and the assurance of his spiritual closeness.”
The fire’s death toll was the worst suffered in New York City since 1990, when 87 people died in an arson attack at the Happy Land nightclub in the Bronx. “The numbers are horrific,” Adams said Monday.