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A fire in a Bronx apartment building leaves 19 dead, including 9 children

New York City Mayor Eric Adam speaks during a press conference near the scene of the fatal fire of an apartment building in the Bronx on Sunday in New York City. At least 19 people have died and dozens were injured.
Ed Jones
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AFP via Getty Images
New York City Mayor Eric Adam speaks during a press conference near the scene of the fatal fire of an apartment building in the Bronx on Sunday in New York City. At least 19 people have died and dozens were injured.

Updated January 9, 2022 at 6:56 PM ET

A malfunctioning space heater sparked a major fire in a New York City high-rise apartment building Sunday morning, leaving at least 19 people dead — including nine children, city officials said Sunday evening.

Officials said the blaze in the city's Bronx borough injured more than 63 people, 32 of whom were in life-threatening condition.

"This is a horrific, horrific, painful moment for the city of New York," New York City Mayor Eric Adams said earlier on Sunday.

"This is going to be one of the worst fires that we have witnessed during modern times here in the city of New York," he added.

New York City Fire Department Commissioner Daniel Nigro said the fire, caused by a portable space heater in a bedroom, was contained to a two-story apartment that spanned the second and third floors of the 19-story building. But when the residents fled the burning apartment, the door was left open, he said — spreading smoke throughout the building and contributing to the loss of life.

Emergency first responders remain at the scene of an intense fire at a 19-story residential building that erupted in the morning on Jan. 9, 2022 in the Bronx borough of New York City.
Scott Heins / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Mayor Eric Adams said the fire is one of the worst to happen in New York City in modern times.

All of the injuries were due to severe smoke inhalation, Nigro said. The building didn't have fire escapes; the only means of escape was through the interior stairwells. But some residents couldn't get out because of the volume of smoke, he said.

Ken Otisi, a resident of the building, described seeing a wall of smoke when he opened his apartment door.

"It was pitch black, thick, chalky smoke. The type of smoke you can't breathe," he said. "There was one point where I thought I was going to die. But I tried to stay as calm as possible."

When Otisi was eventually able to leave the building, he saw multiple people and pets unconscious in the hallway, he added.

Many firefighters' air tanks ran out of air as they continued working to rescue people.

The building was home to many immigrants

The Bronx apartment building was home to a high population of immigrants, including many from Gambia, city officials said. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said she would establish a victim's compensation fund, and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer promised to offer housing, tax and immigration assistance at the federal level.

"We're all feeling this. And we're going to be here for this community to help them navigate through this," Adams said Sunday evening.

"Tonight is a night of tragedy and pain. And tomorrow we begin to rebuild," Hochul said.

The mayor urged any residents who need assistance to reach out, regardless of immigration status. "Your names will not be turned over to ICE or any other institution," he said. "We want people to be comfortable coming forward."

Many of the victims were Muslims, officials said. Adams said the city would coordinate with faith leaders to ensure they respect Islamic burial rites.

Emergency first responders remain at the scene after an intense fire at a 19-story residential building that erupted on Sunday in the Bronx, New York City.
Scott Heins / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Emergency first responders remain at the scene after an intense fire at a 19-story residential building that erupted on Sunday in the Bronx, New York City.

The Red Cross is providing emergency shelter in hotels for those who need it. The city has said it will find long-term housing for residents if they can't return to their apartments.

According to the FDNY, about 200 of its members responded to the five-alarm fire at 333 E. 181st St. in the Bronx on Sunday morning after the department received several calls of a fire from residents in the upper floors.

Nigro said units arrived at the fire within three minutes of the first call of a fire at a duplex apartment in the 19-story building.

"This smoke extended the entire height of the building — completely unusual," Nigro said earlier on Sunday. "Members found victims on every floor in stairways and were taking them out in cardiac and respiratory arrest."

The last time the city saw such a deadly blaze could be the Happy Land fire in 1990, Nigro said. Eighty-seven people died after an arsonist set fire to the social club, trapping attendees inside.

Jasmine Garsd and WNYC's Jake Offenhartz contributed reporting.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Matthew S. Schwartz is a reporter with NPR's news desk. Before coming to NPR, Schwartz worked as a reporter for Washington, DC, member station WAMU, where he won the national Edward R. Murrow award for feature reporting in large market radio. Previously, Schwartz worked as a technology reporter covering the intricacies of Internet regulation. In a past life, Schwartz was a Washington telecom lawyer. He got his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, and his B.A. from the University of Michigan ("Go Blue!").