By Kelly McCleary, Amir Vera and Liam Reilly, CNN
All 17 victims from a fire in a Bronx apartment building on Sunday died of smoke inhalation, according to the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME).
The manner of death was determined to be an accident for them all, said OCME director of public affairs Julie Bolcer.
The determination comes after an electric space heater sparked a fire in a duplex unit, flooding the 19-story apartment building with smoke.
Several space heaters had been running for days inside the apartment where the deadly fire started, a fire official told CNN. The heaters, including the one that sparked the blaze, were discovered after firefighters sifted through the rubble, the official said.
Fire officials said that the smoke was able to spread because the door of that apartment and the door from the stairwell to the 15th floor were left open, even though the doors were supposed to close automatically.
Eight of the victims were children, including a 2-year-old boy, two 5-year-old girls and a 6-year-old boy. Police released a full list of their names and ages:
Fatoumata Drammeh, 50, female; Foutmala Drammeh, 21, female; Muhammed Drammeh, 12, male; Nyumaaisha Drammeh, 19, female; Haji Dukary, 49, male; Fatoumata Dukureh, 5, female; Haja Dukureh, 37, female; Mariam Dukureh, 11, female; Mustapha Dukureh, 12, male; Omar Jambang, 6, male; Sera Janneh, 27, female; Haouwa Mahamadou, 5, female; Seydou Toure, 12, male; Fatoumata Tunkara, 43, female; Isatou Jabbie, 31, female; Hagi Jawara, 47, male; Ousmane Konteh, 2, male.
Some residents allowed to return
Some residents who survived the fire can return to the top floor apartments, the New York City Emergency Management (NYCEM) told CNN on Tuesday.
“Some residents are now able to relocate apartments on the top floors,” said spokeswoman Ines Bebea. “The process is ongoing and evolving.”
The agency was unable to provide a timeline for when or how many people will reenter the building, as the building’s management is notifying residents individually and “not rushing people back into their apartments,” Bebea said.
New York City Department of Buildings records show that the building was listed with a Partial Vacate Order on Tuesday after a structural stability inspection was conducted on Monday.
The return of some residents comes as officials are looking for long-term solutions to ensure a similar tragedy never happens again.
“The two values that matter most to all of us are our family and our homes, and to lose both in the span of a single tragedy is terrifying and traumatic to an extent that few of us can imagine,” US Rep. Ritchie Torres, who represents the area where the fire took place, told CNN on Monday.
Lawsuits seek $3 billion in damages
Tenants and relatives of the victims of the fire filed a class-action lawsuit against the current and previous owners of the building seeking $2 billion in damages, according to court documents.
The city and various entities were also given notice of a separate class-action lawsuit seeking $1 billion in damages for alleged negligence in enforcing building codes.
In a statement to CNN, New York City Law Department press secretary Nicholas Paolucci said, “This was a horrific tragedy and too many lives were lost. There is an active investigation into this tragic incident. We’ll review the claim.”
City data shows there were at least four heat-related complaints and one complaint about a defective self-closing door reported last year to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the agency that oversees housing development violations in the city.
Some violations had been repaired, according to the agency.
“HPD is working to make sure that critical violations have been addressed and apartments are safe for return,” spokesperson Jeremy House told CNN in a statement Wednesday.
Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC, which purchased the complex in 2019 and is named in one of the lawsuits, issued a short statement.
“We are devastated by this terrible tragedy and are cooperating fully with the Fire Department and other agencies as they continue to investigate.”
Attorney Robert Vilensky said he represents 22 plaintiffs in the lawsuits but expects that number to grow.
The lawsuit against the building owners alleges the defendants were negligent on several fronts, including failing to ensure smoke detectors were working, failing to provide adequate heat, failing to have an intercom system and failing to have a sprinkler system.
Issues with smoke alarms and doors
The building’s doors and reports of malfunctioning smoke alarms are a focus of the investigation, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.
Building conditions will also be a topic for a new task force of federal, state and local leaders who say they’re focused on policies and potential legislation that can prevent further tragedies.
Torres announced the task force Monday alongside Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson and local City Council members Oswald Feliz and Pierina Sanchez.
“There are underlying issues that we are facing every day with fire alarms and sprinkler systems and exits, and heat and hot water, and basic necessities that every resident and tenant of New York City should be afforded,” Gibson said.
The focus on legislation is one part of a four-prong plan by leaders, which also includes ensuring permanent housing for those whose units were destroyed, that those displaced can return to their units as soon as possible and providing any services needed for those affected.
In addition to looking into the enforcement of New York’s laws requiring self-closing doors, Torres said the group would also explore whether current minimum heating requirements are sufficient. The Bronx building’s heating appeared to be working, Torres said, but residents still felt the need to use space heaters to keep warm.
Built in 1972, the building was federally funded, so it may have been built outside the New York City fire code, Nigro said Sunday, adding it was unlikely to have been a factor in the fire.
At a news conference Monday, New York firefighter union representatives confirmed the building was not required to adhere to city fire codes.
“We have to clarify in federal law that federal developments, federally regulated and subsidized developments, should be subject to local fire codes and housing codes and building codes. That every American have access to safe and affordable housing, including housing that’s safe from fires,” Torres told CNN’s Jim Sciutto.
Survivors describe battling thick smoke
Residents of the 120-unit building have said the fire alarms in the building often malfunctioned, so when they sounded Sunday morning, Daisy Mitchell told CNN she “didn’t pay it no mind.”
But then Mitchell’s husband began to smell smoke in their 10th-floor unit and they encountered thick smoke when they went to investigate.
“I went to the stairs, I opened the door, it just blew me back (to) the house,” she added. “If I’d stayed out there for another three seconds, I would have been gone, too.”
Karen Dejesus lives on the same floor as the apartment that caught fire and said the flames encroached on her residence.
“I can see the flames, I can see the smoke and everything, you know, coming into my apartment,” Dejesus said.
Dejesus said firefighters broke down her door to rescue her, her granddaughter and her son. They had to climb out of a window to escape the flames.
She, too, noted fire alarms in the building often went off.
“So many of us were used to hearing that fire alarm go off so it was like second nature to us,” she said. “Not until I actually seen the smoke coming in the door, I realized it was a real fire and I heard people yelling help, help, help.”
Mamadou Wague said he was jolted awake Sunday morning by the sound of his children yelling, “Fire! Fire!”
Wague lives on the third floor of the building with his eight kids, who range in age from 6 months to 18 years old.
His family wasn’t able to flee the building because there was too much smoke, he said. Terrified, they waited in a neighbor’s apartment, putting wet towels under the doors, until firefighters arrived 15 to 30 minutes later to escort them down the stairs.
Wague, an Uber driver who immigrated to the US from Mali in 2000, said the fire burned all his family’s belongings.
“Everything is gone in my apartment,” he said. “Everything is gone.”
The Red Cross has provided emergency housing to 22 families, representing 56 adults and 25 children, the group said in a statement.
Many in the building are from The Gambia
Nfamar Kebe said at least one of his relatives died in the fire and his nephew’s 2-year-old son is hospitalized, fighting for his life.
But Kebe, who came to the US from Guinea 35 years ago, said the building and the community is home to many West African immigrants who have become part of his extended family.
“We are one community,” he says. “When we meet here, we are the same family.”
Many of those in the building were Muslim immigrants from the West African nation of The Gambia. The country’s ambassador told CNN the building had been a beloved home for many such immigrants over the years.
“I think a lot of Gambians who came here, they stayed there before they moved anywhere else,” said Ambassador Dawda Docka Fadera. This was kind of a first port of call, this building. It’s a building Gambians have a lot of attachment to.”
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CNN’s Mark Morales, Lauren del Valle, Mirna Alsharif, Brynn Gingras, Bonney Kapp, Tami Luhby, Artemis Moshtaghian, Taylor Romine and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.