Safety Doors Failed in NYC High-Rise Fire That Killed 17

NEW YORK (AP) -
Firefighters work outside the apartment building in the Bronx on Monday. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

Investigators sought answers for why safety doors failed to close when fire broke out in a New York high-rise, allowing thick smoke to rise through the tower and kill 17 people, including eight children, in the city’s deadliest blaze in more than three decades.

A malfunctioning electric space heater apparently started the fire Sunday in the 19-story building in the Bronx, fire officials said. The flames damaged only a small part of the building, but smoke poured through the apartment’s open door and turned stairwells into dark, ash-choked death traps. The stairs were the only method of escape in a tower too tall for fire escapes.

Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said the apartment’s front door and a door on the 15th floor should have been self-closing and blunted the spread of smoke, but the doors stayed fully open. It was not clear if the doors failed mechanically or if they had been manually disabled. Nigro said the apartment door was not obstructed.

The heavy smoke blocked some residents from escaping and incapacitated others as they tried to flee, fire officials said. Firefighters carried out limp children and gave them oxygen and continued making rescues even after their air supplies ran out.

Glenn Corbett, a fire science professor at John Jay College in New York City, said closed doors are vital to containing fire and smoke, especially in buildings that do not have automatic sprinkler systems.

“It’s pretty remarkable that the failure of one door could lead to how many deaths we had here, but that’s the reality of it,” Corbett said. “That one door played a critical role in allowing the fire to spread and the smoke and heat to spread vertically through the building.”

Dozens of people were hospitalized, including several in critical condition. Mayor Eric Adams called it an “unspeakable tragedy” at a news conference near the scene Monday.

“This tragedy is not going to define us,” Adams said. “It is going to show our resiliency.”

Adams lowered the death toll from an initial report Sunday, saying that two fewer people were killed than originally thought. Nigro said patients were taken to seven hospitals and “there was a bit of a double count.”

The dead included children as young as 4 years old, City Council Member Oswald Feliz said.

An investigation was underway to determine exactly how the fire spread and whether anything could have been done to prevent or contain the blaze, Nigro said.

A fire department official said the space heater had been running for a “prolonged period” before the fire began. What caused it to malfunction remains under investigation, spokesman Frank Dwyer said. Fire then spread quickly to nearby furniture and bedding, Dwyer said.

Nigro said the heat was on in the building before the fire started, and the space heater was being used to supplement it.

Large, new apartment buildings are required to have sprinkler systems and interior doors that swing shut automatically to contain smoke and deprive fires of oxygen, but those rules do not apply to thousands of the city’s older buildings.

The building was equipped with self-closing doors and smoke alarms, but several residents said they initially ignored the alarms because they were so common in the 120-unit building.
Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC, the group that owns the building, said it was cooperating fully with the fire department and the city and working to assist residents.

New York City inspectors have issued violations for problems with self-closing doors on five apartments in the building and one opening to a stairwell stretching back a dozen years, according to a database maintained by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The records state that all the violations were corrected.

The tower was required by building codes to have sprinklers only in its trash compactor and laundry room because it has concrete ceilings and floors, she said.

Camber Property Group is one of three firms in the ownership group that purchased the building in 2020 as part of $166 million purchase of eight affordable housing buildings in the borough. One of Camber’s founders, Rick Gropper, served on Adams’ transition team, advising him on housing. He contributed to a dozen politicians in the past few elections, including $400 to Adams’ campaign last year.

New York City has been slow to require sprinklers for older apartment buildings, passing laws to mandate them in high-rise office towers after 9/11 but dithering in recent years on a bill that would require such measures in residential buildings.

In 2018, a city lawmaker proposed requiring automatic fire sprinklers in residential buildings 40 feet or taller by the end of 2029, but that measure never passed, and the lawmaker recently left office.