NEW YORK (NBC) — A fire that tore through a Bronx building, killing at least 12 people, may have been caused by a young child playing with a stove in a first-floor apartment, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday.
Four other people were critically injured and fighting for their lives after the blaze broke out shortly before 7 p.m. Thursday at a five-story building near the Bronx Zoo. Witnesses described seeing children without coats huddled on fire escapes as firefighters worked through icy conditions to bring the flames under control in about two hours.
“By the time I got downstairs, the fire had already escalated from one apartment to two, two to almost three. All I see is a bunch of kids on the fire escape, cold, with no jacket, no pajamas, no nothing,” said Rafael Gonzalez, who lives across the street.
The dead included four children: three girls ages 1, 2 and 7, and an unidentified boy. The oldest was a 63-year-old woman. De Blasio called the city’s worst fire tragedy in a quarter-century and “an unspeakable tragedy,” and warned that the death toll could rise.
“In the middle of the holiday season, a time when families are together, tonight here in the Bronx there are families that have been torn apart,” the mayor said. “Based on the information we have now, this will rank as one of the worst losses of life to a fire in many, many years.”
De Blasio’s press secretary tweeted Friday morning that the cause of the fire appeared to have been a small child playing with a stove. Officials were expected to speak more about the fire at a press conference later Friday morning.
Mayor: cause of fire appears to be a small child playing with a stove in a first-floor apartment. https://t.co/ettcMkS2wu
– Eric Phillips (@EricFPhillips) December 29, 2017
Firefighters rescued at least 12 people Thursday night with first responders tackling with temperatures in the teens and wind making it feel like the single digits, NBC New York reported. Fourteen people were hurt, including about six firefighters and an emergency responder.
De Blasio told CNN Friday morning that first responders rushed to the scene within minutes.
“They were they right away. And remember, with the freezing cold, tough conditions for our firefighters and emergency personnel, but they did a great, great job,” he said.
Maria Bonilla, who lives a block away, was outside waiting to hear word on a friend’s 8-month-old child.
“There was a lot of people coming out in stretchers, burned,” she told reporters at the scene. “There was fire, really bad fire. It was crazy.”
Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said that the blaze began on the first floor and quickly spread upstairs into the building, which has 25 apartments. Victims were found on various floors, he said.
“In a department that’s certainly no stranger to tragedy, we’re shocked by this loss,” Nigro said. “This tragedy is without question historic in its magnitude here, and our hearts go out to every family that lost a loved one here and everyone that’s fighting for their lives.”
Excluding the Sept. 11 attacks, it was the worst fire in the city since 87 people were killed at a social club in the Bronx in 1990.
Local resident Robert Gonzalez, who has a friend who lives in the building, told The Associated Press that she got out on a fire escape as a neighbor fled with five children.
“When I got here, she was crying,” Gonzalez said.
Thierno Diallo, 59, a security guard who lives in a ground-floor apartment, told the AP that he was asleep and heard banging on the door.
“I heard people screaming, ‘There’s a fire in the building!'” he said. “I heard somebody, ‘Oh! Fire! Fire! Fire!'”
Diallo said the apartment building has tenants who hail from all over the world.
The cause of the fire remained under investigation early Friday, as the temperatures felt like below zero.
Many questions remained in the immediate aftermath of the blaze, including how the fire spread so quickly in a brick building that was built after catastrophic fires at the turn of the 20th century ushered in an era of tougher enforcement of fire codes.
The building was not new enough that it was required to have modern-day fireproofing, like sprinkler systems and interior steel construction.
Witnesses described seeing burned bodies being carried away on stretchers and young girls who had escaped standing barefoot outside with no coats.
Twum Bredu, 61, arrived in the neighborhood looking for his brother, who had been staying with a family in the building. The family, a husband and wife and four children, got out. But there was no word about his brother.
“I’ve been calling his phone, it’s ringing, but nobody picks up,” Bredu said. “He was in his room, and we don’t know what happened.”