NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — A fire at an apartment building in the Bronx that left 12 people dead was caused by a child playing with a stove, officials said Friday.
FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said that the 3 1/2-year-old boy was playing with the burners on the stove in a first floor apartment of the building on Prospect Avenue and 185th Street.
“The fire got started, the mother was not aware of it, was alerted by the young man screaming,” Nigro said. “She exited the apartment with her 2-year-old and 3-year-old and left the door open.”
The fire commissioner said they were told the boy “had a history of playing with burners and turning them on.”
“Before the mother knew it, this fire had gotten a good hold in the kitchen. She said there was a lot of fire, a lot of smoke. Grabbed the children and ran out,” he said.
Nigro said the fire quickly spread up the stairs, but said there was nothing structurally about the building that was unusual.
“Fire travels up, the stairway acted like a chimney,” he said. “It took the fire so quickly upstairs that people had very little time to react. They couldn’t get back down the stairs. Of those that tried, a few perished.”
Other than 9/11, Nigro said the blaze was “the worst loss of life from fire in almost 28 years.” He said that it was a combination of smoke and burns that killed the victims.
As CBS2’s Jessica Layton reported, five of the 12 people who died in the fire were children. On Friday morning, Mayor Bill de Blasio said four others were fighting for their lives.
On Friday afternoon, police confirmed the deaths of Maria Batiz, 58; Karen Francis, 37; Charmela Francis, 7; Kylie Francis, 2; Amora Vidal, 7-months; and Shantay Young, 19.
Batiz was a grandmother watching her infant granddaughter, and relatives said she called her daughter at work to tell her she and the baby weren’t going to make it out alive.
“She told my niece she was going to die in there — she was trapped; the smoke. She was going to die,” a relative said. “It’s terrible.”
Those lucky enough to survive packed onto fire escapes. For the FDNY – it was a frantic fight to save those still stuck inside.
Sources also said Emmanuel Mensah, 28, a soldier visiting New York City for the holidays who had been reported missing after the fire, was also among those killed in the blaze.
“I thought maybe he was coming back,” said Kwabena Mensah, the victim’s father. “Unfortunately, it turns out the other way.”
The identities of five additional people were not yet confirmed.
One woman, who did not want to be identified, was able to escape but is now suffering unimaginable grief.
“We lost four family members and we’re not sure about one,” she said.
She lost her sister, Shawntay Young; her aunt Karen Francis; and her aunt’s two daughters, 7-year-old Kelesha and 2-year-old Kylie. The children’s father is in critical condition.
“My aunt, oh my God, there’s nothing in this world she wouldn’t do for her family,” she said. “Those two little babies! God rest their souls, they’re beautiful.”
Also killed in the fire was a 1-year-old girl, a 63-year-old woman and three unidentified men, who were pronounced dead at the scene.
Another unidentified woman, a man and another male child were taken to area hospital, where they were pronounced dead.
A first look inside the burned out apartment building late Friday showed a charred stairwell, soaked debris on the floor, and the thick icicles that formed after the flames were out.
City records show that there are open violations on the first floor of the building for defective carbon monoxide and smoke alarms, CBS2’s Magdalena Doris reported.
“The building owner, the building management is supposed to make sure that all those basic safety precautions are in place,” de Blasio told CNN on Friday.
Nigro also stressed the importance of closing your door in the event of a fire.
“If unfortunately you do have a fire in your apartment, you must close the door when you exit. The results when you don’t are what happened last night,” Nigro said.
The fast-moving fire started just before 7 p.m. Thursday, forcing residents outside on one of the coldest nights of the year and trapping other people inside.
The FDNY responded in three minutes and around 170 firefighters worked in frigid temperatures to rescue about a dozen people.
“People were on the fire escape trying to get down on their own,” said neighbor Kimberly Wilkins. “People were screaming, ‘Fire! Help, fire help!’ We knew it was trouble.”
“When I wake up, all I see is the flames going up, kids are on the fire escape,” said neighbor Rafael Gonzalez. “It was one apartment and then it escalated to two apartments. It just kept going next and up — it escalated.”
As firefighters scrambled to save tenants, the Red Cross arrived on the scene to battle the tragedy in a different way by bringing warmth to those who desperately needed it.
Volunteers wrapped residents forced out in the cold in blankets and provided buses for shelter as temperatures lingered in the teens with the wind chill below zero.
“No coat or nothing, straight shorts,” said Gonzalez. “Straight shorts so I know, therefore, I know they had to be cold.”
In response to the fire, a coat and clothing drive to help those affected will be held at the Church of Saint Martin of Tours at 2239 Crotona Ave. (E. 182nd St./Garden Avenue), from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday.
Some good Samaritans also stepped in offering their neighbors supplies.
“It was families in there, we know all these people, we love them,” said Wilkins. “Bringing out blankets, trying to help people.”
Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Joe Esposito said a nearby school, Crotona International Academy, 2474 Crotona Ave., had been opened as a reception center for those displaced.
The city has also activated its Unified Victim Identification System. If you are concerned about a loved one who may be affected by the fire, officials say call 311.