At least 17 people, including eight children, were killed Sunday when a horrific fire apparently sparked by a space-heater filled a Bronx high-rise with thick smoke after the door to the apartment where the blaze began remained open.
“We expect that number to grow,” a senior FDNY official told The Daily Beast of the ghastly toll. (The figure was in fact revised down on Monday from a previous count of 19 dead, including nine kids.)
Dozens more were injured despite the frantic efforts of some 200 firefighters to rescue residents. Flames consumed the second floor of a duplex listed as a third-floor apartment, sending the killer smoke throughout the 19-story building.
Stephan Beauvogui, a 50-year-old resident of the building who escaped with his wife and two sons (ages 6 and 9), told The Daily Beast that he was lying down when he first smelled smoke early Sunday. “My wife always says that I complain about smells,” he said. “She didn’t take me seriously. Then I opened the door, and, Oh, my God!”
“Flames and smoke [were] everywhere,” he added, calling it the scariest moment of his life and bemoaning the lack of fire escapes at the building.
A firefighter on scene told The Daily Beast that many windows on the 19-story building were broken by residents trying to get air, not by firefighters—a testament to the sheer volume of smoke involved.
Another resident who lived on the ninth floor told The Daily Beast that she looked out her window early Sunday, saw the flames, and initially planned to wait it out.
She quickly changed her mind.
“I thought I was going to die in there, so we decided to run down the stairs,” she said. “That was the scariest shit of my life.”
Fatoumata Wague, who identified herself as a relative of those living in the apartment where the blaze began, told The Daily Beast that a space heater had, indeed, set off the disaster. (An FDNY official confirmed an address linked to the Wague family was the unit in which the fire started.) Wague, who said she was visiting relatives in the aftermath of the tragedy, was unsure if they had been using the unit because of a defective radiator or any other structural issue in their home.
“I get up, and there’s smoke in the kids’ rooms,” her cousin Mamadou Wague, 47, told The New York Times, describing rescuing his 8-year-old daughter from a bed being consumed by flames.
From top officials to rank-and-file fighters, FDNY veterans painted a picture of a virtual worst-case scenario once the fire began.
“The smoke conditions in this building were unprecedented,” Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said Sunday. He later added that marshals using physical evidence—and firsthand accounts from residents—indicated the fire was caused by a space-heater malfunction.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams said the inferno “is going to be one of the worst fires we have witnessed during modern times in the city of New York.”
Alanny, a 13-year-old in the building, told the New York Post, “We saw moms fainting. They saw their kids dying.... We saw a bunch of bodies coming out. People from childhood were dying.”
Firefighters were on the scene within two minutes after the blaze was first reported around 10:55 a.m.
Some residents were already beyond help.
Thick smoke “extended the entire height of the building... completely unusual,” Nigro, the fire commissioner, said. “Members found victims on every floor, in stairwells, and were taking them out in cardiac and respiratory arrest.”
“There were certainly people trapped in their apartments all through this building, which is why our members did an unbelievable job of getting through every floor of this building and getting to these folks,” he added. “But some of them were already in arrest when we reached them.”
Nigro said that the flames and smoke could have been contained if the door in the duplex had automatically shut when the residents fled.
Images and footage from the scene showed firefighters scaling ladders to rescue individuals stuck on higher floors. Nigro said there were reports that one person fell trying to climb out of an FDNY ladder that had just been put up.
The terror wrought by the blaze was not confined to residents of the building.
“I was cooking and I smelled the smoke from my bathroom. It was getting stronger. I stopped cooking. I took my son, and left,” Tiffany Díaz, who lives in a building across the street, told The Daily Beast. “It’s terrifying. I was terrified to smell the smoke. I just ran out. I didn’t take anything with me.”
One NYPD officer on the scene told The Daily Beast, “It was the craziest thing I’ve seen since on the force,” adding that they had served a decade.
City officials did not hold back in emphasizing the scale of the tragedy.
“This is a horrific, horrific, painful moment for the city of New York and the impact of this fire is going to really bring a level of just pain and despair in our city,” Adams said.
“The numbers are just horrific.”
He said it would likely be the worst fire since the 1990 arson at the Happy Land Social Club, in which 87 perished in a Bronx building with no sprinklers and multiple blocked exits. Before that, the deadliest fire in New York City was the notorious 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, which helped usher in the modern era of fire regulations and inspections at businesses.
The building in Sunday’s fire is a large, federally subsidized affordable housing complex that has faced multiple lawsuits in recent years from tenants and neighbors for injuries sustained in and around the building.
The violations the building has drawn include damaged fire retardant on the first story and multiple vermin infestations, as well as recent complaints residents had lodged that cited broken heating units and exposed wiring in the lobby.
The building changed ownership in January 2020, shortly before the new proprietors—a team of investors led by Camber Property Group, along with Belveron Partners of San Francisco and Maine-based LIHC Investment Group—received a $24.675 million state- and federally backed loan against it and other affordable-housing properties.
Camber was co-founded by Andrew Moelis, the son of the prominent and politically influential New York City property developer Ron Moelis. Moelis’ co-founder, Rick Gropper—a veteran of the Moelis family’s company L+M Development Partners—was one of nearly 800 figures Mayor Adams named to his transition team before entering office this year. Property records indicate that L+M, a frequent partner with the city in affordable property maintenance and construction, held a stake in the building at the time of the loan.
“We are devastated by the unimaginable loss of life caused by this profound tragedy,” a spokesperson for the owners told The Daily Beast. “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. Our thoughts are with the families and friends of those who lost their lives or were injured, and we are here to support them as we recover from this horrific fire.”
The building had no outside fire escapes that are seen on many older structures in New York. Nigro said they are not required on newer high-rises.
While one resident told The Daily Beast it was not uncommon to hear smoke detectors blare several times a day at the building, it was not clear if they were working at the time of the fire on Sunday.