Speaker 1: This is going to be one of the worst fires that we have witnessed during modern times here in the City of New York.
Melissa Harris-Perry: 19 lives lost, 9 of them, children. That is the tragic loss of human life that we know of so far from a fire that tore through a Bronx New York City apartment on Sunday morning. 13 others are in critical condition. With us from WNYC and Gothamist is Jake Offenhartz. Jake, community first, what's the scene there, and how are families coping in this chaos?
Jake Offenhartz: The people I spoke to yesterday were in shock. They all describe just the speed at which their 19-story building filled up with black smoke yesterday. It started on the third floor, but there was a door open, and it spread throughout the building. People who tried to go into the hallways encountered basically pitch black, dark smoke. They describe this black mucus feeling that they choked down from even seeing it for a second.
Those that survived basically did so by staying inside their own apartments, waiting until the smoke went down enough that the fire department was able to make it in and evacuate them safely. Afterwards, there was a middle school that was turned into a Red Cross resource center, and there were families basically just trying to get their bearings, trying to locate loved ones. Trying to figure out where they were going to sleep that night, what they were going to do about footwear, because they had to leave so quickly that they didn't bring shoes. There was just this real sense of communal grief and mourning.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, this is not entirely unprecedented. In fact, although it is one of the deadliest fires in the city, the Bronx is actually a part of the city where we have seen several other major fires with multiple fatalities. Is there something particular about the Bronx?
Jake Offenhartz: It does seem like every major fire in New York City, or so many major fires happen in the Bronx. I think one thing that's notable here is that this is the poorest congressional district in the country. As Ritchie Torres, the Congress member pointed out last night, poor housing stock results in more fires, and Black people in America, according to some data, are nearly twice as likely to die in residential fires, so there's definitely an equity aspect here.
What's interesting about this building is that it was designed as public housing in 1972, it was state-funded-- This sort of really experimental and ambitious project to build housing for low to middle-income tenants that was affordable, but also of high quality. There were some really prestigious architects who were involved, and it was seen as a success. There are also a lot of reports that it didn't really stay that way, that there was a lack of regular maintenance-- The project, although it received state funding and money for state repairs, is owned by a group of private investors.
A lot of the tenants I spoke to said that there were just routine maintenance issues at the building, including the fact that this door-- Apparently, inside the apartment where the space heater was on fire, the door was left open. Doors in New York City are required to close automatically for exactly this reason, so that if there's a fire, it doesn't spread. Eric Adams said earlier today that he was going to look into this possible maintenance issue with the door.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I feel like you've provided us with the kind of big structural and historic equity issues, and also, an understanding about what may have been going on in the long term around the condition of the building. I want to narrow in just on the more short-term, which is the impact of the COVID-19 Omicron surge. It's my understanding that there were only four firefighters instead of five because so many people are sick out with COVID, and that Andrew Ansbro of the FDNY Uniformed Firefighters Association actually suggested that one additional firefighter might have made a difference.
Jake Offenhartz: Yes, I think that's definitely something that we're going to be following here. The FDNY officials that we spoke to said that the response time was very quick. It was about three minutes, and that they had a lot of personnel there. There were 200 firefighters, but yes, like just about any other city agency or workforce, the FDNY has been decimated by Omicron cases. If that did affect what they were able to do here, I think that'll be a pretty significant takeaway.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jake Offenhartz, WNYC and Gothamist reporter, thank you so much for your time.
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