Hospitals worked Monday to save several people who were gravely injured in a Bronx apartment fire as a clearer picture emerged of what caused New York City’s deadliest fire in three decades.
Dozens of people were hospitalized after the fire Sunday, which authorities say broke out at around 11 a.m. As many as 13 people were admitted into hospitals in critical condition. Their status was unclear as of Monday morning.
“Today’s fire was a terrible tragedy, and our thoughts are with the families of those affected,” NYC Health + Hospitals/Jacobi said in a statement on Sunday, saying it had received 19 patients from the blaze.
The Jacobi Medical Center, a municipal hospital operated by NYC Health + Hospitals, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News early Monday morning.
New York City Fire Commissioner Dan Nigro said investigators had determined that a malfunctioning electric space heater appeared to have been behind the blaze.
While the fire damaged only a small part of the building, heavy smoke swept through its stairwells and halls, trapping residents in their homes and incapacitating those who tried to escape.
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Nigro said the fire had been able to expand because a door in the two-level second-floor unit where the fire started had either been left open or did not automatically close after residents fled.
He added the building, which was constructed in 1972 with federal support, did not have fire escapes, only internal stairwells. Because of its federal origins, Nigro said, “it was potentially built outside the New York City fire code.”
Around 200 firefighters responded to the blaze on East 181st Street, according to the fire department, with the flames contained by around 1 p.m., NBC New York reported.
As they responded to the blaze, firefighters found victims on every floor, with many in cardiac and respiratory arrest, Nigro said.
According to Mayor Eric Adams, firefighters worked to save lives even after their own air supplies ran out.
“Their oxygen tanks were empty and they still pushed through the smoke,” he said.
Nigro said an investigation was underway to determine how the blaze spread and whether anything could have been done to prevent or contain it.
The building was equipped with smoke alarms, but a number of residents said they initially ignored them because alarms often went off in the 120-unit structure.
Newer buildings in the city are required to have sprinkler systems and interior doors that automatically shut to contain smoke and reduce a fire’s access to oxygen. Those rules, however, do not apply to older buildings.
Tributes for those killed in the blaze have poured in on social media as some have asked how they can help support their families, as well as survivors.
Speaking at a news conference on Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said many of the dead were “immigrants working to drive that ladder up, and their lives snuffed out.”
In a tweet, Adams’ office said the city would fly flags at half-staff until sunset Wednesday “as a mark of respect for the victims of the tragic fire.”
The mayor’s office said people interested in helping those affected by the fire could donate to a fund supporting victims’ families and survivors.
“Your entire donation will go towards those impacted,” it said.
On Sunday evening, a spokesperson for Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC, the owner of the building, said its alarm system had worked properly during the fire.
“There are no known issues with the smoke alarms and it appears the fire alarm system worked as designed,” they said by email.
The spokesperson also suggested that the doors had been working as designed, saying that “the building has self-closing doors, as required, and there have been no violations related to self-closing doors at the property.”
The owner, which the spokesperson described as a joint venture of three investor groups, released a statement offering condolences for the victims of the blaze and expressing sympathy for those displaced, saying it would accommodate “longer term housing” if needed.
“We are devastated by the unimaginable loss of life caused by this profound tragedy,” it said. “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.”
The fire is the deadliest in NYC since 1990, when 87 people died in an arson at the Happy Land social club, also in the Bronx.
It also comes just days after a deadly fire at a rowhouse in Philadelphia left 12 people dead, including eight children. Officials there said none of the four battery-operated smoke detectors were working at the time.
Doha Madani and Dennis Romero contributed.