Mayor revises death toll to 17, cautions count could still rise

New York City Mayor Eric Adams holds a press conference January 10, 2022 outside the 120-unit apartment building in the Bronx that was the site of the fire yesterday.

Timothy A. Clary | AFP | Getty Images

Up to 13 people remained in critical condition Monday, with many more hospitalized, after New York City’s deadliest fire in three decades tore through a towering Bronx apartment complex, killing over a dozen. Eight were children.

The initial death toll has been lowered to 17, at least eight of those victims are children, Mayor Eric Adams announced Monday. In the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s devastating blaze, city officials had confirmed 19 deaths connected to the fire.

Investigators determined that a malfunctioning electric space heater, plugged in to give extra heat on a cold morning, started the fire in the 19-story building on 181st Street early Sunday afternoon. A door left open in the burning apartment fueled the spread of flames and ultimately the devastating loss of life and property.

That apartment door, Fire Commissioner Dan Nigro elaborated upon Monday, wasn’t functioning properly. Instead of closing automatically as city code and fire safety protocol stipulate, the door remained ajar after the unit’s tenants escaped, leading to the fire’s spread. A working smoke alarm was present.

The flames damaged only a small part of the building, but smoke escaped through that open door and billowed through stairwells and halls, trapping many people in their apartments and incapacitating others as they fled. Most of the deaths were due to smoke inhalation, and many of those victims were found in hallways.

Multiple limp children were seen being given oxygen after they were carried out. Evacuees had faces covered in soot. There were harrowing tales of survival, as some used curtains or sheets to make makeshift ropes for window escapes.

333 E. 181st Street fire

The fire originated in a duplex on the second and third floors of the building but never extended past the unit and the hallway nearest the apartment, officials said.

The smoke turned stairwells — the only method of flight in a building too tall for fire escapes — into dark, ash-choked horrors.

Building resident Sandra Clayton grabbed her dog Mocha and ran for her life when she saw the hallway fill with smoke and heard people screaming, “Get out! Get out!”

Clayton, 61, said she groped her way down a darkened stairway, clutching Mocha. The smoke was so black she couldn’t see, but she could hear neighbors wailing and crying nearby.

“I just ran down the steps as much as I could but people was falling all over me, screaming,” Clayton said from a hospital where she was treated for smoke inhalation.

In the commotion, her dog slipped from her grasp. It was later found dead in a stairwell.

Firefighters found victims on every floor, many in cardiac and respiratory arrest, Nigro noted at a Sunday press conference. Some could not escape because of the sheer volume of smoke, he said.

The building is equipped with smoke alarms, but several residents said they initially ignored them because alarms were so common in the 120-unit building.

Jose Henriquez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who lives on the 10th floor, said it seemed that’s what happened when alarms started blaring Sunday.

“It seems like today, they went off but the people didn’t pay attention,” Henriquez said in Spanish.

He and his family stayed, wedging a wet towel beneath the door once they realized the smoke in the halls would overpower them if they tried to flee.

Emergency first responders remain at the scene after an intense fire at a 19-story residential building that erupted in the morning on January 9, 2022 in the Bronx borough of New York City.

Scott Heins | Getty Images

Luis Rosa said he also initially thought it was a false alarm. By the time he opened the door of his 13th-floor apartment, the smoke was so thick he couldn’t see down the hallway. “So I said, OK, we can’t run down the stairs because if we run down the stairs, we’re going to end up suffocating.”

“All we could do was wait,” he said.

The Red Cross is assisting at least 21 families displaced by the blaze.

NYC apartment fire investigation

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