Four children are among the 12 people killed in New York City’s deadliest residential fire in decades.
Mayor Bill de Blasio told CNN that other people are still fighting for their lives. He said first responders saved at least 12 lives.
Those who died in the Bronx fire last night include three girls – aged one, two and seven – and a boy whose age was not given, the New York Police Department says. Some residents made it down fire escapes but the flames moved so fast that many never made it out of their apartments.
Witnesses describe seeing burned bodies being carried away on stretchers and young girls who had escaped standing barefoot outside with no coats.
The cause of the fire, the deadliest residential fire to hit New York City in at least 25 years, remains under investigation. Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said the blaze was “historic in its magnitude” because of the number of lives lost.
Excluding the September 11 attacks, it was the worst fire in the city since 87 people were killed at a social club fire in the Bronx in 1990. “Our hearts go out to every person who lost a loved one here and everyone who is fighting for their lives,” Mr Nigro said.
The blaze broke out on the first floor of a five-story building just before 7pm and quickly ripped through the roughly century-old structure, which stands in a row of similar apartment buildings a block from the grounds of the Bronx Zoo.
Around 170 firefighters worked in bone-chilling -9C (15F) cold to rescue about a dozen people from the building. Water sprayed from hoses froze on the street.
Thierno Diallo, 59, a security guard originally from Guinea, who lives in a ground floor apartment, said he was asleep when he heard banging on the door. It took him a moment to realise what was happening.
“Only when I heard people screaming, ‘There’s a fire in the building!'” he said. “I heard somebody, ‘Oh! Fire! Fire! Fire!'”
He ran out in his bathrobe, jacket and sandals. Kenneth Kodua, 37, said he left his apartment to get food, leaving his roommate behind, and came back to find people fleeing in a panic.
Hours later, he was still trying to find out whether his roommate escaped. “I tried calling her. I tried calling. No answer,” he said, still clutching his bag of uneaten food. His phone was dead.
Many questions remained in the immediate aftermath of the blaze, including how the fire spread so quickly in a brick building built after catastrophic fires at the turn of the 20th century ushered in an era of tougher enforcement of fire codes.
The building had more than 20 units. It was not new enough that it was required to have modern-day fireproofing, like sprinkler systems and interior steel construction. Neighbourhood resident Robert Gonzalez said a friend who lives in the building was able to get out via the fire escape as another resident fled with five children.
“When I got here, she was crying,” he said. Windows on some upper floors were smashed and blackened. Displaced residents wrapped in Red Cross blankets were staying warm on city buses, brought in to provide heat.