How Bronx building turned into a smoke-choked chimney that killed 17: Self-closing doors failed, it didn’t have fire escapes and alarm system was so sensitive residents ignored it
Fire experts said the design of a nearly 50-year-old Bronx building and its older fire safety features likely contributed to the blaze caused by a faulty space heater turning the complex into a smoke-filled chimney on Sunday morning.
The inferno erupted in a third-floor duplex in the 19-floor Twin Parks North West building, which was built in 1973.
Andrew Ansbro, president of the FDNY Uniformed Firefighters Association Union, said the ageing building was poorly equipped to deal with a fire.
‘It was at a building that was built under federal guidelines way back when, so it’s not up to New York City fire codes,’ he told the New York Daily News.
It has no fire escapes, as they weren’t a requirement when the building was constructed. At the time, the city had banned exterior fire escapes. However, as Sunday’s inferno burned the stairwells, which are meant to be used as emergency exits, quickly filled with smoke.
Fire officials cited the system of ‘scissor stairs’ inside the complex as a design that makes it more difficult to feed a hose through in the building.
Twin Parks North West is equipped with self-sealing fire doors, but it is unclear how many of them were open. Investigators said at least one, located on the 15th floor of the high-rise, was not shut, allowing smoke to spread.
Per city law, Unit 3N – where the fire originated – had a self-closing door, however, New York City Mayor Eric Adams confirmed Monday the door failed to completely shut, likely the result of a ‘maintenance issue’.
‘We’re looking to determine if there was some form of malfunctioning of the door,’ Adams told CNN Monday morning.
‘We have a law here that requires doors to close automatically. We are looking at [that] through the investigation with the fire marshals, who will be extremely thorough with the investigation.’
Fire investigators tested most of the doors in the complex on Sunday and found a handful of other units had doors that did not close automatically, as designed, a fire official confirmed to the New York Times.
The complex also has a sprinkler system, but only in its laundry and contractor room. Large, new apartment buildings in the city are required to have sprinkler systems and interior doors that swing shut automatically to contain smoke and deprive fires of oxygen, however those rules don’t apply to older buildings.
Additionally, many residents ignored the fire alarms when they went off on Sunday because they sound so frequently as false alarms.
‘First we heard the fire alarm go off. Numerous times,’ said Michael Joseph, 32, who lived on the sixth floor with his uncle. But we didn’t think nothing of it, because normally people in the building, they smoke and tend to set it off. So we thought it was probably just people playing.’
Fire experts said the design of a nearly 50-year-old Bronx building and its older fire safety features likely contributed to the a blaze caused by a faulty space heater turning the complex into a smoke-filled chimney on Sunday morning
The fire at Twin Parks North West complex in the Bronx broke out in Unit 3N, where the nine-person Wague family resided. Their residence is pictured Monday, covered in ash and debris
The family’s apartment is seen completely destroyed. Father Mamadou Wague said the blaze left his eight-year-old daughter trapped in her bedroom on a mattress engulfed in flames. He pulled his daughter out of the flames and managed to escape
The blaze in unit 3N was caused by a faulty space heater, fire marshals determined Monday
The entire unit was damaged by the blaze
The owners of the Bronx building insist smoke detectors were working on Sunday when the flames tore through the building, despite fire bosses claiming the building isn’t up to code, and include a member of the new mayor’s housing transition team.
Eight children and nine adults died after the fire started at 333 E. 181st St. near Tiebout Ave in the Bronx shortly before 11am, tearing through a duplex apartment then spreading to other units in the affordable housing complex.
It is believed to have been started by a space heater that was running uninterrupted for days inside 3N, an apartment where Mamadou Wague and his eight children lived. They all survived but another eight kids from inside the building, and nine adults, died.
At a press conference on Monday, officials said the fire spread after the apartment’s entry door failed to automatically close, as it should have, when Wague and his family fled.
‘The fire was contained to the hallway just outside this two-story apartment, but the smoke travelled throughout the building and the smoke is what caused the deaths and the serious injuries,’ Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro explained.
Mayor Adams, echoing Nigro’s claim, vowed to ‘double down’ on the instructing residents to close doors in the event of a fire. However, he reiterated that city leaders do not blame the family for the catastrophe.
‘What we don’t want to do is just to add more trauma on a family that was simply trying to escape, a very dangerous and a very frightening experience,’ Adams said.
Although none of the victims’ identities have been confirmed by the coroner’s office, police sources told the New York Post the youngest victims include a four-year-old, two five-year-old girls, a six-year-old boy, a pair of 11-year-old girls and a 12-year-old boy. Several victims appear to be from the same families.
Additionally, many residents remain missing including Dorel Anderson, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, and her boyfriend, Ramel Thompson.
Thompson’s parents, who also live in the building and successfully escaped, claim the couple was in the apartment during the blaze but haven’t yet been found.
Anderson’s mother, Karen Benjamin, echoed the Thompson family’s concerns, telling the Post: ‘We were given no information. We can’t find her.’
New York City’s worst fire disaster in more than 30 years that broke out on the second and third floor of a building at 333 East 181st Street in the Bronx has killed eight children and nine adults (pictured, people jump to safety from the burning building)
FDNY commissioner Daniel Nigro said that ‘very heavy’ fire and smoke ‘extended the entire height of the building’ and confirmed that a space heater caused the blaze. Firefighters were pictured rescuing residents from the blaze early on Sunday
New York City Mayor Eric Adams said a malfunction with a self-closing door allowed smoke from a Bronx apartment fire started by a faulty space heater to spread throughout the building, killing eight children and nine adults
The building is home to many immigrants from west Africa, especially Gambia, and the Dominican Republic. It has a mix of private renters and those whose rent is being paid by the state.
Wague recalled how his kids alerted him to the blaze: ‘One of the kids said, ‘”Oh, Daddy! Daddy! There’s a fire!”’
‘I get up and there’s smoke in the kids’ rooms.’
He then found his eight-year-old daughter, Nafisha, screaming and trapped on a burning mattress in her bedroom.
The 47-year-old father pulled his daughter from the burning bed, suffering burns to his lips and nose, and escaped the unit with his family. Nafisha sustained burns but is alive.
‘I just grab her and run,’ the west African immigrant told the New York Times. ‘I didn’t think about anything except getting her out.’
Smoke had filled the now ash-covered unit.
‘It was dark,’ his son, Hame Wague, 16, told the newspaper. ‘We were all coughing.’
Although his entire family survived the blaze, the tragedy left Wague stricken with grief.
‘I don’t want anybody life — I don’t want to hear anybody dead in this fire, that’s what I worry about,’ he told ABC 7 shortly after his rescue.
Fire Marshals have ruled the blaze ‘accidental,’ with the cause being a malfunctioning space heater. A New York City official, who spoke to the New York Times on the condition of anonymity, said officials suspect the space heater had been running uninterrupted for multiple days.
Emergency personnel from the FDNY provide medical aid as they respond to an apartment building fire in the Bronx
Some of the broken windows from a fire where a space heater caught fire and caused the devastation in the Bronx
Some of the items that caught fire at 333 East 181st Street in the Fordham Heights area of the Bronx
Firefighters respond to a five-alarm blaze that broke out in the Bronx on Sunday
The building is owned by Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC, a consortium of three property developers; The Camber Property Group, Belveron Partners and the LIHC Group. They purchased the building along with seven others in late 2019 as part of a $160million deal on affordable housing in the Bronx.
333 East 181st Street was formerly known as Twin Parks North West. They bought it for just shy of $25million – which values each of the 120 apartments inside at $206,000. The wider, $160million deal of 1,200
The tenants are all households earning 60 percent of area median income. A family or household of four in the building earns, for example, $72,000 and generally their rent will be less than a third of that annual income – less than $2,000 per month.
A spokesperson for the consortium would not confirm how much tenants pay in rent at 333 East 181st Street when contacted by DailyMail.com on Monday.
The developers paid a third less than the average sale price of homes in the Bronx, and a seventh of the average sale price of apartments in New York City when they bought the properties in 2019.
The owners charge tenants there less than the market rate for apartments in the area.
They also receive subsidiaries from the local governments and enormous tax credits.
Andrew (left) and Charlie Gendron (right) of the LIHC group, the third investor
According to an announcement at the time they bought the properties, the developers said they intended to renovate.
It’s unclear if any renovations had begun but records filed with the Department of Housing indicate more than two dozen violations and complaints at the building since 2013.
Public records show the building has open violations for cockroach and mouse infestations, lead paint and water leaks, however no structural violations were listed.
Some of the complaints were filed in December of 2021.
The developers agreed to keep the properties within the city’s roster of affordable housing when they purchased them.
They said they would keep them affordable for the next 40 years at least.
One of The Camber Group’s founders is Rick Gropper, who was among hundreds listed as a contributor to new Mayor Eric Adams’ transition team in the housing department.
The others are Andrew and Charlie Gendron, of the LIHC Group, and Paul Odland of Belveron.
A spokesman for Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC, the group of investors who own the building, told The New York Times that the fire alarm system in the building was working on Sunday and that there were no outstanding concerns.
‘We are devastated by the unimaginable loss of life caused by this profound tragedy.
‘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 received various complaints from residents last year, including at least four alleging their unit had ‘no heat’
The developers who own the building where the fire occurred on Sunday also own another seven in the neighborhood, shown above. They purchased them in 2019 as part of a deal in which they acquired 1,200 apartments for $160million – an average of $133,333 per apartment. The average market cost of an apartment in the Bronx is three times that as around $365,000
The five-alarm blaze is New York City’s deadliest in three decades. President Joe Biden, speaking with Mayor Adams Monday, offered his ‘heartfelt condolences and support’ to the victims, city leaders and residents. Biden told the mayor any resources the city needs will be made available.
Pope Francis offered his condolences Monday to the victims of the ‘devastating’ apartment fire. In a telegram sent to New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan he offered ‘heartfelt condolences and the assurance of his spiritual closeness’ to those affected by the blaze.
The death toll, originally reported as 19, was downgraded to 17 on Monday.
Addressing the revised numbers, Commissioner Nigro said patients had been taken to seven different hospitals in the city, which led to ‘a bit of a double count’.
‘This number could unfortunately increase again,’ he told reporters.
‘We pray to God that they’ll be able to pull through,’ Mayor Adams echoed, adding: ‘If we take one message from this (disaster), it’s close the door.’
At least 200 firefighters responded to the scene, some arriving within minutes of the initial call for help. As they entered the building, the first responders were met with flames in the hallway.
The mayor said the fire crews continued rescue measures even after running out of oxygen.
‘Their oxygen tanks were empty and they still pushed through the smoke,’ Adams explained, noting that icy conditions made it difficult for firefighters to put out the blaze.
‘The impact of this fire is going to really bring a level of pain and despair in this city,’ Mayor Adams said during a press conference early on Sunday, shortly after the blaze was extinguished.
‘The numbers are horrific. We have over 32 people who are life-threatening at this time. This is going to be one of the worst fires we have witnessed in the City of New York in modern times.’
Sunday’s blaze came just days after a Philadelphia house fire killed 12 people, including eight children.
That was the deadliest fire at a U.S. residential apartment building since 2017, when 13 people died in an apartment in the Bronx, according to data from the National Fire Protection Association.
That fire started after a three-year-old boy was playing with stove burners.
The deadliest fire prior to that was in 1989 when a Tennessee apartment building fire claimed the lives of 16 people.