Bronx Tears: Tragic Fire Kills 17, Community Unites; Blame, Lawsuits Begin
NYC Mayor and other local elected officials held a press conference to update the media on the Bronx five alarm fatal fire. – Bronx, NY USA January 10, 2022 (Shutterstock)
“This is a global tragedy, because the Bronx in New York City is representative of the ethnicities and cultures across the globe,” Mayor Eric Adams said standing with electeds the day after the deadly Bronx blaze that killed 17 people.
On that frigid Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, up to 200 New York City Fire Department members battled to knock down the fire and rescue residents. The fast-spreading fire, bone-chilling icy weather, and heavy billowing-smoke combined to lead to New York’s deadliest fire in 30 decades.
The fire at 333 East 181st Street—also known as Twin Parks North West—raises bigger issues. Reportedly a faulty space heater in a third-floor apartment ignited a fire, the FDNY reported, which sent choking smoke through all floors of the 19-story, 120 unit building. The NYPD initially stated, “Upon extinguishment of the fire by FDNY personnel, multiple injuries and fatalities were reported and observed. The fire marshal determined the cause of the fire and the medical examiner will determine the respective causes of death. The investigation remains ongoing.”
Not since the 1990 Bronx Happy Land fire has the city seen such a massive loss of life in a single fire.
The Bronx community held an organic “Bronx Strong” masterclass in instantaneous community support. From hosting fundraisers bringing in almost a million dollars, to preparing culturally sensitive meals for the largely Gambian and Muslim residents, to filling rooms of nearby Monroe College with donated blankets and coats and other resources.
While some reporting leans not-so-subtly to apportioning blame on the residents in the apartment where the fire started for not closing the door as they fled, another question being raised widely is why did the third floor, Unit 3N, self-closing door fail? Another big question is why was the heating system apparently so inadequate that tenants felt the need to use space-heaters to warm their homes?
“The focus shouldn’t be on doors being left open by fleeing tenants,” said City Councilman Charles Barron. “The focus should be why they need heaters in the first place and was the landlord adequately providing heat.” Barron said even privately owned buildings are subject to the Department of Buildings’ and state and city laws, regulations and agency oversight.
Tenants told reporters of years of inconsistent heat, and problems with self-closing doors simply not closing on their own. On Tuesday, Jan. 11, Rosa Reyes and Felix Martinez became the lead plaintiffs in a $3 billion class-action lawsuit, claiming that the current owners and the former owners of the building—and the city—“had actual notice of defective conditions.” They are also demanding $1 billion be given to all who have been affected. Reyes filed notice of a billion dollar lawsuit as her husband lay on a respirator, unable to breathe on his own after the couple struggled through the smoke-filled hallways on Sunday.
Many victims are still fighting for their lives in city hospitals—more than 60 were initially amongst the injured.
According to reports, the building had self-closing doors, but on Monday Fire Department Commissioner Daniel Nigro said that the self-closing door mechanism in Unit 3N, where the Wague family lived, “wasn’t functioning as it should.”
Mamadou Wague and his eight children survived, but alas 17 other tenants perished, including eight children.
“They should stop blaming the victims,” said Brooklyn landlord Milford Tyler. “Now they are being victimized twice. First for not having the heat they felt comfortable with, and then for trying to correct the condition. The doors not working and leaving the door open as you ran for your life is not the issue. Tenants feeling that they have to use unregulated heating systems in a multi-family building is the problem.”
Tyler charged: “This is a straight-up lawsuit. It is the landlords’ responsibility to make sure that there are no hazardous conditions in the building, and an unregulated heating system is a hazardous condition. It’s on the landlord, it’s on HPD—everybody dropped the ball.”
Tyler, who said he has been a New York City landlord for two decades, added, “In my apartments my tenants are walking around in t-shirts and opening windows in the winter. I blast the heat. There should be a call for all landlords, if you want to protect your investment, give the people heat.
“One of the ways to regulate the heating devices—give them heat so they don’t have to turn on stoves and be in danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. Tenants understand, landlords pretend not to.”
“As an attorney and a tenant in a high rise building, I believe that the apartments and the hallways in the new developments have self-closing doors,” said attorney Brian Figeroux. “They are safety mechanisms, and a part of that is having self-closing doors in the apartment, the hallways, and the emergency exits. These tenants have the right to bring a lawsuit against the private owner, and the city if they were in contract with private owners.” Figeroux concluded, “We are calling on the New York City Council and the state to enforce the mandate for these essential fire safety mechanisms.”
All on the table for analysis in lofty elected offices and community spaces and homes and even outside the building itself was the use of electric space heaters, the failure of the self-closing doors, and the emphasis for the need for sprinklers and fire alarms.
The icy air was the cold backdrop to the deadly flames and black smoke which engulfed 333 East 181st Street just after 10:55 a.m. on Sunday morning. Veteran firefighters, police, electeds, family, community members and activists fought hard with raw emotions and the bare horror of the loss became apparent.
Firefighters and first responders worked tirelessly to revive those overcome with smoke.
Days later New Yorkers and even local, national and foreign press stood on the outside looking in at the shattered, smoke-blackened apartments, stairwells and hallways of a ghostly looking building with dozens upon dozens of windows blown out.
The FDNY said that they found the injured on almost every one of the 19 floors. The open door and another one on the 15th floor created a deadly chimney effect.
Former fire commissioner Thomas van Essen advised New Yorkers that in the event of a fire, they should stay in their apartment as the hallway acts as a chimney.
From the governor, to the mayor, to electeds across city, state, and federal, they have announced all manner of resources for the victims: from help finding new homes, to money, clothes and family resources. Empathetic and sympathetic NYC neighbors have outdone themselves with donations of food, clothing, blankets, and toiletries.
The devastating fire which took 17 lives—eight of them children—has shook New York City. Many are from the same family. On Wednesday the NYPD released the names of all the deceased from the youngest, Ousmane Konteh, 2-year-old boy, to Fatoumata Drammeh, a 50-year-old woman.
Gambia’s ministry of foreign affairs reported that 11 Gambians, including six children, were killed.
Hajj Dukuray said that he lost five members of his family: his niece Haja Dukureh, 37; her husband Haji Dukuray, 49; and their three children, Mustapha Dukureh, 12, Mariam Dukureh, 11, and Fatoumata Dukureh, 5.
“We are holding onto our faith. We are hanging in there as much as we can. We’re supporting each other,” said Hajj.
The Amsterdam News reached out to the Gambia Permanent Mission to the United Nations, but heard nothing back by press time.
Traveling from D.C. to New York upon hearing the gut-wrenching news, Ambassador Dawda Docka Fadera told CNN, “I think a lot of Gambians who came here, they stayed there before they moved anywhere else. This was kind of a first port of call, this building. It’s a building Gambians have a lot of attachment to.”
A highly emotional vigil was held outside the building on Tuesday evening with more than 100 in attendance for the candlelit prayers and commentary support. There were electeds such as Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson. Attorney General Letitia James demanded justice in the investigation of the deadly fire. She told the crowd, “I will also use the law both as a sword and as a shield to get to the bottom of this fire…There’s a lesson to be learned about the neglect of government,” James charged, “and there’s a lesson to be learned about why this continues to happen in this corner of the Bronx.”
While Mayor Eric Adams initially said that the 120 unit, 19-story building seemed to have complied with city fire codes, he acknowledged that he is awaiting the completion of the investigation by fire marshals.
Adams also claimed that the two current outstanding building violations had nothing to do with a lack of heating in the building. “It appears the landlord was operating the building accordingly, but a thorough investigation will determine that,” Adams said on CNN Monday. In another cable TV interview on Monday, Adams had stated, “Fire marshals are going to do a thorough investigation into the source of fire, why it spread so rapidly throughout the building and look at doors. Did it have the automatic closing it was supposed to have based on a law that was passed in the city?” An all too common multi-dwelling complaint being reported is that residents initially ignored the smoke alarm, because of the consistent frequency of the alarm going off allegedly due to folks hanging out in the hallways and smoking.
Calling it “an unspeakable tragedy,” and citing the deadly Bronx social club Happy Land fire in 1990, which killed 87 people, Adams declared, “This is a wakeup call for all of our buildings.”
Officials say that the third floor may need extensive rebuilding, but some residents have already returned to some of the other floors. While the Red Cross assisted residents immediately, and HPD were in the mix, the landlord said he would pay for hotels for those who could not yet return to their building. Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson has said that any resident of the building will be relocated should they choose to be.
Meanwhile, social media is awash with condolences and commentary.
“And now the media and public officials are insidiously implying blame on the victims,” said Carlito Rovira on Facebook. “If the building structure were to have adequate heating there would have been no need for anyone to use a portable heater. And now it’s being disclosed that there were faulty doors that would not close, a factor that points to lack of maintenance and why the fire spread so fast.” Sidney Barry noted, “So very sad and l would like to know what do you need a space heater for after paying high rent that goes up every year?”
“As soon as the media realized they were mostly African immigrants, they downplayed the seriousness of 19 lives lost,” said Isaac Kusi, founder and CEO of Krismark.
Through the tears citywide, residential buildings, central heating systems, self-closing doors, immigration, and bias, as apportioned blame made headlines, were all topics heartily discussed.
Shivering in the January air in the shadow of the burnt-out building, electeds such as Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson vocalized the feelings of a distraught community. “I am heartbroken and saddened by the news of this horrific 5-alarm fire in Belmont that claimed the lives of  Bronxites in our community,” she said Sunday. “Our team will do everything we can in the coming days to support and uplift the residents and their families that were affected by today’s tragedy at Twin Parks. We are incredibly grateful for the outpouring of support we have received and will be sharing updates. I am also thankful for our first responders and essential workers, who were on the frontlines responding immediately to the crisis, providing on-site support.” BP Gibson said, “Bronxites always put their best foot forward and show their resiliency and strength in the wake of tragedy.”
On Monday a press conference Zoom meeting was hosted by FDNY-Firefighters Association President Andrew Ansbro and FDNY-Fire Officers Association President Lt. James McCarthy.
At a Zoom meeting as the smoke literally cleared, the Amsterdam News asked if all the dead were victims of smoke inhalation. McCarthy replied that indeed all of them were. It was not the fire, it was the smoke, the FDNY reported.
Bodies were found on every floor.
“Certain buildings can be built under different standards,” Fire Commissioner Nigro told the media at a press conference on Monday. “It was potentially built outside the New York City Fire Code.” The Fordham building has been cited by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development for over two dozen violations, including vermin infestations and non-operational elevators. Built in 1972 by the state Urban Development Corporation—the present Empire State Development Corporation—as an urban renewal project, the building was owned by Cammeby’s International Group. They sold the building in 2019 to Cammeb’s International Group. Under the name Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC, the building is now owned by a consortium of investors including: Belveron Partners, LIHC Investment Group, and Camber Property Group. The group purchased the dwelling with financing assistance for a $166 million deal for eight Mitchell-Lama Bronx buildings from New York State Housing Finance Agency and Freddie Mac.
Affordable-housing unit investor Camber Property Group co-founder Rick Gropper had been a part of then mayor-elect Eric Adams’ housing transition team.
While the consortium did not respond to an Amsterdam News request for a response, their spokesperson issued a published statement: “We are devastated by the unimaginable loss of life caused by this profound tragedy. 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.”
In 2018, after a deadly December 2017 Bronx fire in a residential building which killed 12, then-Bronx City Council member Ritchie Torres co-sponsored, and the City Council passed, a law mandating that self-closing doors be installed in all residential buildings by July 2021.
City &State reported that “HPD issued more than 22,000 self-closing door tickets in fiscal year 2021, which cost landlords up to $150 per infraction, plus $125 per violation per day, the agency said. More than 18,000 of those violations have been remedied, HPD said.”
Now a congress member, Torres, on Monday, said that he is proposing a federal, state and city task force to look into enforcing the self-closing door mandate, and other issues overseeing fire safety standards in residential buildings. “We have to ensure that the housing stock is brought to the 21st century when it comes to fire safety,” Torres said.
In December 2021, a complaint was registered that a self-closing door and a radiator were not working.
The New York Times reported that the fire was started in the “bedroom of a second-floor duplex, where a space heater had been running for several days.” After residents fled the apartment, the self-closing door reportedly “malfunctioned” as Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro suspected, and did not close as it should, allowing deadly smoke to rise throughout the entire 19 floors. Fire Commissioner Nigro told reporters that while the heat was on in the building, the space heater was being used.
Reports show that last December, a sixth-floor resident reported that the self-closing door was not working as it should, and that there was a heating problem. Heating issues were reported to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development on Dec. 6 and 8.
Mayor Adams admitted on “Good Morning America,” Monday that as there is an “ongoing investigation,” and it may determine there “may have been a maintenance issue” with the malfunctioning self-closing door.
The conglomerate of affordable housing investors LIHC, Belveron Partners and Camber Property offered that HPD had actually addressed the current 18 open violations for mice, roaches and bed bugs, and a “broken or defective fire retardant material” on the first floor.
Meanwhile, as scrutiny in the wake of the tragedy is in play, doing the rounds again is the issue that while in 2018 the City Council attempted to introduce a bill to mandate automatic sprinklers in every residential building taller than 40 feet; landlords and real estate groups successfully countered that it would be too expensive for them and disruptive for their tenants.
“We join impacted families in grieving the tragic loss of life that resulted from the Bronx fire,” said UndocuBlack Network Patrice Lawrence, executive director.
Conjuring up memories of the deadly 2017 North Kensington, U.K. fire, Jamaican immigrant, Lawrence said, “As was the case with the Grenfell Tower fire, we are familiar with these tragedies: even when classified as accidents, they result from systemic failures. The response to such devastation requires community, love and support but structural change.”
The UndocuBlack Network urged the public to support Salim Drammeh’s New York City Gambian Youth Organization (GYO) fundraiser (https://www.gofundme.com/f/relief-for-families-at-333-e-183rd-st). By Amsterdam News press time $971,941 had been raised toward their $200,000 goal.
“I am enraged that the Gambian youth have to be the leaders as our federal and state systems continue to fail us on so many levels,” said Haddy Gassama, policy and advocacy director. “However, I’m also deeply grateful and proud of the leadership our people have shown. It is only community support and resources that make this hard moment bearable.”
“For decades, public housing has kept our people living in indignity without maintenance or consistent basic services, like heat. The African community should not have to fix the New York government’s failures. New York elected officials need to house the impacted families and other tenants in the hundreds of empty Bronx luxury apartments today,” said Yoliswa Khumalo Hadebe, South African immigrant, and director of media.
Mayor Adams and Sen. Chuck Schumer have publicly stated that no immigration-related questions will be asked when survivors of the fire seek help.
“UndocuBlack urges impacted immigrants to reach out for the support they need,” said Lawrence. “There will be no immigration consequences for requesting or receiving help. No one should have to grieve the loss of a child and deal with potentially being unhoused, while fearing imminent deportation.”
“Sen. Schumer’s verbal promise to the immigrant community was well taken, but mere words are not enough,” added Hadebe. “He must deliver in word and in deed by ensuring that his caucus passes the Build Back Better Act with the inclusion of green cards.”
“Donations are great, but they are not enough,” said Imam Souleimane Konaté. “Cash, clothes and food is fine, but going to visit the families of victims, talking to them—that gives them hope that there are people there with them. Being there in person shows them that we are there for them. I was there from the first day. I went to the hospital to give them hope and let them know that the people are for them.
“I tell my community to keep your faith strong, and let us come together. It is time for us to integrate into the system, we are here now. We are Now Yorkers. We need to come out and be active. Mayor Eric Adams is here for all of us, he said that he spoke with President Biden about what happened, and that is meaningful for all of us. Everybody is coming to help us. The victims could be your brother, your cousin. We are all connected as a people. We are Africans, Muslims. We are one, we are family.”
Konaté said that while the media is focusing on The Gambia, because “..that is where the majority of the victims were from, there were also people from Mali, Senegal, and Guinea.”
As the west African communities prepare for the janazah (funeral) prayer for all the victims, scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022 at 12 p.m., Konaté added that the Adams administration, community affairs, and the medical examiners are working together to ensure that “the bodies must be released as soon as possible so we can have the service.” A service was held on Wednesday for two of the children. For Saturday’s janazah the venue is scheduled to be at the Islamic Cultural Center of the Bronx, on 166th Street, between College and Morris Avenues.
“We will pray on the bodies and those who want to send them home to Africa will do so, and the others will be taken to the funeral home for burial here,” said the Imam.
Harlem-based community-builder Joyce Adewumi said, “Our heart goes out to the families who have lost someone and who are hurt and hospitalized. Whenever a person dies, it is a shared sorrow because loss of life is traumatic—the families are never the same again.”
Adewumi, founder of the New York African Chorus Ensemble, and cultural ambassador at the Nigerian Consulate in New York, added, “We feel their pain and anything we will do we will gladly do. We know that people are gathering items. We will also be putting together some items and resources for those who survived this terrible fire.”
Bronx Congressman Jamaal Bowman said on Monday, “During this difficult time, I am sending love to everyone impacted by today’s devastating and heartbreaking fire in the Twin Parks North West Complex and stand ready to assist my colleague, Congressman Ritchie Torres, and the entire community as we mourn the lives lost.”
Bowman’s office said that he is “working jointly with Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass) to urge President Biden, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and other legislators to protect consumers from unfairly high heating and energy prices, and expand the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). This helps eligible low-income families with home heating costs. It also covers weatherization services, and furnace and chimney cleaning, repair, and replacement.”
Black firefighters’ Vulcan Society President Dellon Morgan advised that in such a situation people “can shelter in place in a fireproof multiple dwelling. Those in the cinderblock box the fire will never get in. There should be self-closing doors, and doors should be closed when leaving an apartment.”
And if and whenever used, Morgan added, “Space heaters should be on an independent line, no extensions. It is a sad day when there is such a loss of life.”
Bronx BP Gibson made available several services, including: those looking for a loved one, call 311. Text 181STFIRE to 692692 for resources.
The New York City Unified Victim Identification System (UVIS) was activated in response to the incident. Those concerned about the welfare of someone who may have been affected by the event and are unable to contact them, were asked to call 311.
Those affected who need a place to stay were advised to call the Red Cross for emergency temporary shelter at 1-877-733-2767.
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