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Bronx Tenants Complained About Lack Of Heat & Other Violations Before Space Heater Caused Deadly Fire

Photo: Steve Sanchez Photos / Shutterstock.com
New York Fire Department

The Bronx apartment building fire that occurred on Sunday was among the most deadly fires New York City has seen since 1990 when the Happy Land club in the Bronx killed 87 people.

The apartment building fire left more than five dozen people hurt and hospitalized 13 people in critical condition as well as taking the lives of 17 (including 8 children) at the time of writing.

The catatrophe is being investigated but many have used the tragedy to point out New York's ongoing problem with unsafe living conditions.

The Bronx apartment building had a history of violations and a lack of heating before the fire sparked.

According to fire and city officials, a malfunctioning space heater is what caused the fire in the first place, sparking a blaze that sent a choking smoke through the building and made it much harder for people to escape the tragedy that was beginning to unfold.

This occured after tenants had raised concerns about the lack of heat in the building.

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"This is an unspeakable tragedy," Mayor Eric Adams said. "It is not going to define us. It is going to show our resiliency."

Fire Department of New York Commissioner Daniel Nigro said two self-closing doors did not shut properly and allowed the smoke to spread, causing a death toll that could continue to rise as many people remain in critical condition at the hospital.

However, this fire was one that could have been easily prevented and could be a direct result of the landlord’s neglect of the apartment complex.

Why did a tenant need to have a space heater to begin with? Considering winter is in full swing, every house and building in the city should have the heat turned on and no one should require a space heater in order to stay warm.

Last year, at least three different tenants filed complaints about the lack of heat; one complained about a broken ventilation system and another said their door did not automatically close. There were also several complaints about pests.

The malfunctioning space heater was an accident that no one could have seen coming, but the apartment complex was also flagged by NYC safety inspectors for malfunctioning doors in the past.

The building had a history of malfunctioning doors that may have allowed the fire to spread more easily.

The fire was sparked in a duplex unit on the second and third floors when a space heater malfunctioned and lit, Nigro said, but the front door to the unit was open, as well as a door that opened to the 15th-floor stairwell.

The two doors were supposed to close on their own, Nigro said, but instead, they allowed smoke to billow through the stairwell.

"The stairwell was very dangerous as the door was left open. Some of the floors, certainly on 15, the door was open from the stairs to the hall and the 15th floor became quite untenable," he said at a Monday news conference.

According to Nigro, the doors were not obstructed, and Mayor Adams said that the door may have had maintenance issues — turns out, he was right.

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According to a Department of Housing Preservation and Development database, New York City inspectors had issued violations related to the buildings' self-closing doors dating back a dozen years.

The violations were at five apartments and one stairwell door and were all allegedly corrected, however, tenants themselves were unaware of the self-closing doors.

Karen Dejesus, 54, who escaped her apartment on a fire ladder Sunday, told USA TODAY the door to her apartment was not self-closing and she wasn't sure how many of the doors in the building did close automatically.

The City council passed ordinances in 2018 that required apartment buildings, hotels, nursing homes, and other multiple-dwelling units to have self-closing doors leading into stairways and corridors — requiring owners to install them as of July 2021.

Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC, the owners of the apartment complex, released a statement saying all doors in the building are self-closing, including stairwell and apartment doors, as required by the new code, and that there have been no concerns since the previous ones were fixed.

Closer inspections could have revealed that not all of the doors were functioning properly, but the accident occurred anyway and the tragedy unfolded.

Hopefully, this sets an example for increased fire safety and precaution in the city, lest something similar happens again.

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Isaac Serna-Diez is a writer who focuses on entertainment and news, social justice, and politics. Follow him on Twitter here.

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