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NYC officials say weekend apartment fire is one of the worst in the city's history

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A fire at a New York City apartment complex killed at least 19 people on Sunday - nearly half of them children. Officials there call it one of the worst fires in the city's history.

Here's New York City Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro.

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DANIEL NIGRO: This fire began in an apartment that spans two floors on the second and third floor of the building. It started in a malfunctioning electric space heater.

MARTIN: He said victims were found on every floor and in stairways. And it's the second such tragedy to strike in recent days. A fire last week in a crowded Philadelphia row house killed 12 people, including eight children. With us now Jake Offenhartz of member station WNYC.

Jake, so as I noted, New York City officials say this was the deadliest fire in more than three decades, right? Why? What made it so bad?

JAKE OFFENHARTZ, BYLINE: Yeah. I think a lot of people are still trying to figure that out. One thing officials pointed to was the fact that the door to the apartment that caught fire was open, and at least one of the doors in the - leading to a stairwell was also open. And that allowed these thick clouds of smoke to infiltrate basically every floor of the building's 19 stories. And I talked to people who said that they were OK if they stayed in their apartments and barricaded their doors. But many residents tried to evacuate, and some of them died in the hallways that were filled with that smoke.

One resident I spoke to, Ken Otisi, described this wall of black smoke when he opened his apartment door.

KEN OTISI: It was pitch-black, thick, chalky smoke - the type of smoke that you can't breathe. There was one point I did kind of break down. I thought I was going to die. But I tried to stay as calm as possible.

OFFENHARTZ: Otisi said he waited in his apartment for hours. He was eventually able to leave. He helped carry his neighbor's child down the stairs. And he told me he saw multiple people and pets unconscious in the hallway.

MARTIN: What more do we know about the victims at this point?

OFFENHARTZ: We know that many of the victims and the building's residents were members of the West African Muslim community.

I spoke with a member of the Islamic Cultural Center of the Bronx, Bakary Camara. He described this close-knit community of immigrants that had developed around the borough's many mosques.

BAKARY CAMARA: We are devastated. As a people of faith, we leave everything in the hands of Allah subhanahu wa ta'ala. However, you know, we need help. Some people live in this building for 40 years, and now they are uprooted.

OFFENHARTZ: A lot of the survivors I spoke to are still in shock. There was a group of women who immigrated from Guinea. One had glass in her hand from punching out a window to get air flowing through her apartment.

Another woman, Fanta Kpoghomou, told me that her cousin and her cousin's daughter were still missing as of last night.

FANTA KPOGHOMOU: Honestly, I'm just sad. I'm not going to lie to you. I'm just sad. After that, I don't know what to say no more.

OFFENHARTZ: The Red Cross is providing emergency shelter in hotels for those who need it. The city says it will find long-term housing if residents can't return to their apartments. And Governor Hochul has promised to set up a victims compensation fund. But this was an affordable housing complex with moderate- and low-income tenants. And it's going to take a lot of community support.

MARTIN: Was there anything substantively wrong with this building? I mean, it was built in '72, right?

OFFENHARTZ: Yeah. So fire officials say that the building was fireproof. But many high-rises - there was no fire escapes. And residents say there weren't sprinklers in the building because, at the time, there weren't local laws requiring sprinklers in residential buildings.

MARTIN: I'm sure there will be an investigation. Jake Offenhartz of member station WNYC, thank you.

OFFENHARTZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jake Offenhartz