Safety questions loom after Bronx fire kills 17; 13 remain critically injured

People at the scene of an apartment fire in the Bronx on Jan. 9, 2022
An ambulance is seen at the scene of a major fire in the Bronx borough of New York, United States, Jan. 9, 2022. Photo credit Michael Nagle/Xinhua

NEW YORK (1010 WINS/WCBS 880) -- Thirteen people remained in critical condition Monday as investigators continued to probe Sunday’s fire that left 17 people dead at a Bronx high-rise apartment building—the city’s deadliest fire in over 30 years.

Hospitals were working to try to save people gravely injured by smoke that trapped them in hallways and stairwells of the 19-story building, located at 333 E. 181st St. in Fordham Heights. In all, over 60 people were injured.

Officials initially said 19 people—10 adults and nine children—were killed in the fire. However, Mayor Eric Adams said Monday that the medical examiner had revised the death toll down to 17, including nine adults and eight children.

Speaking on 1010 WINS Monday morning, Adams urged New Yorkers looking to help to donate to the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City. He said all proceeds will go to the families.

“This is the time when we come together during a crisis,” the mayor said.

Emergency first responders remain at the scene after an intense fire at a 19-story residential building that erupted on Jan. 9, 2022
New York Mayor Eric Adams is joined by clergy members, local politicians and others as he speaks to the media in front of a Bronx apartment building a day after a fire swept through the complex killing at least 17 people and injuring dozens of others, many of them seriously on January 10, 2022 in New York City. Photo credit Spencer Platt/Getty Images

At an afternoon press conference, Adams called the fire an “unspeakable tragedy.” He said he’d received a call from President Joe Biden, who assured the mayor “the White House is going to be there for us.”

“He has just sent a very strong message that this is on the radar of the entire globe,” Adams said. “This is a global tragedy, because the Bronx and New York City is representative of the ethnicities and cultures across the globe. So everyone is feeling the pain of what we are experiencing.”

 Theodore Parisienne/New York Daily News/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Firefighters hoisted a ladder to rescue people through their windows after a fire broke out inside a third-floor duplex apartment at 333 E. 181st St. in the Bronx Sunday. Photo credit Theodore Parisienne/New York Daily News/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Adams spent part of the day visiting schools near the high-rise, processing grief with teachers and classmates.

"They shared just personal notes of these children, it was something we heard universally about each child we lost is how much they smiled, how much they brought life to the school," Adams said.

The mayor's determined to turn pain into purpose.

"If we take one message from this that FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro has mentioned several times: close the door," Adams said.

Theodore Parisienne/NY Daily News via Getty Images
A fire broke out inside a third floor duplex apartment at 333 East 181st Street in the Bronx on Sunday January 9, 2022. Photo credit Theodore Parisienne/NY Daily News via Getty Images

Investigators are now probing why the building's safety doors failed to close when the fire broke out a day after FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro confirmed the blaze was caused by a malfunctioning electric space heater in the bedroom of a duplex apartment that spans the second and third floors.

Nigro said Monday that 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 had failed mechanically or if they had been manually disabled. He said the apartment door was not obstructed.

While the fire only damaged a small part of the building, the smoke escaped through the apartment’s open door and poured into stairwells and hallways, trapping or incapacitating people as they fled.

Frank Dwyer, a department spokesperson, said the space heater had been running for a "prolonged period" before the fire started. It then quickly spread to furniture and bedding.

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Victims were found on every floor, many in cardiac and respiratory arrest. Some couldn’t escape because of the volume of smoke.

Theodore Parisienne/NY Daily News via Getty Images
Firefighters hoisted a tower ladder to rescue people through their windows after a fire broke out inside a third floor duplex apartment at 333 East 181st Street in the Bronx on Sunday January 9, 2022. Photo credit Theodore Parisienne/NY Daily News via Getty Images

Resident Joseph Brannigan remembered being overcome by smoke.

“All of the sudden I collapsed in the hallway,” Brannigan said. “And what I remember is the fireman look down. I said, ‘I can’t breathe.’ And he broke my door in, quickly smashed all the windows, he dragged me into the apartment, he put an oxygen mask on me. He said, ‘just stay here.’”

Clergy at scene.
Local clergy members, including pastor Kevin McCall (right), gather for a vigil and pray in front of a Bronx apartment building a day after a fire swept through the complex killing at least 17 people and injuring dozens of others, many of them seriously on January 10, 2022 in New York City. Photo credit Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Speaking outside the building Sunday night, Adams praised the FDNY and first responders, saying they made rescues even as their air supplies dwindled.

“Their oxygen tanks were empty and they still pushed through the smoke,” Adams said.

Andrew Ansbro, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, said FDNY staffing cuts may have affected the response to the fire. He said firefighters were cut last week and it made a difference.

“When you have 60 people that need to be removed from a building and you have less hands, people are going to be waiting, and when you’re waiting in that smoke-filled environment, it’s the difference between life and death,” Ansbro said.

The FDNY has denied the claim, saying there was no staffing problem during Sunday’s fire.

Adams said Monday that he has no reason to believe the FDNY crews were short.

“We always do an analysis of the manpower to determine do we have the proper manpower responding,” the mayor said. “And I saw a good level of police and firefighters on the scene, and EMS employees. But we will continue to analyze to make sure we can always do a better job no matter what we do in the city.”

The fire is the city's deadliest since an arson at the Happy Land social club in the Bronx killed 87 people in 1990.

Dozens of first responders remained at the building on Monday morning. Meanwhile, many residents spent the night in a middle school next door, seeking food and shelter.

Red Cross
Members of the Red Cross stand in front of a Bronx apartment building a day after a fire swept through the complex killing at least 19 people and injuring dozens of others, many of them seriously on on January 10, 2022 in New York City. Photo credit Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Officials said Monday that a majority of residents from the building’s 120 units had been given accommodations in at least four hotels.

The FDNY and Department of Buildings are working to determine if it’s safe for families to reenter. Officials are hopeful that people living above the third floor, which suffered the most damage, will be given the opportunity to return Monday at the earliest.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Broken windows are seen at a Bronx apartment building a day after a fire swept through the complex killing at least 19 people and injuring dozens of others, many of them seriously on January 10, 2022 in New York City. Photo credit Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The third floor is uninhabitable, and residents there will need to be temporarily or permanently relocated, officials said.

Gov. Kathy Hochul said she would establish a victim's compensation fund to help individuals affected by the deadly fire.

The governor said she held a mother who lost her entire family. “It’s hard to fathom what they’re going through,” she said.

A GoFundMe page for families impacted by the fire had raised over $650,000 by Monday night.

Some residents who live in less damaged units will be allowed back in the coming days.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.