Investigators in New York City searched early on Friday for the cause of a blaze that ripped through an apartment building in the borough of the Bronx, killing 12 people including an infant, in the city’s deadliest fire in at least a quarter of a century.
The fire broke out a little before 7 p.m. on the first floor of a brick building and quickly spread upstairs, city Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro told a news conference with Mayor Bill de Blasio. The cause was under investigation.
“We’re here at the scene of an unspeakable tragedy. In the middle of the holiday season is a time when families are together. Tonight, here in the Bronx, there are families that have been torn apart,” de Blasio said.
Four people were in hospital in critical condition “fighting for their lives,” the mayor said. Authorities said firefighters rescued 12 people from the building.
“People died on various floors of the apartment, ranging in age from 1 to over 50,” Nigro told reporters. “In a department that is surely no stranger to tragedy, we’re shocked by the lives lost.”
Two of the dead were found in a bathtub, according to cable news station NY1.
“People were screaming and that’s how we knew there was trouble,” eyewitness Kimberly Wilkins told WCBS-TV, an affiliate of CBS News. “People were screaming, ‘Fire. Help. Fire. Help.’”
The blaze erupted in the Belmont section of the Bronx, a primarily residential, close-knit neighborhood known as the ‘Little Italy’ of the borough, adjacent to the Bronx Zoo and Fordham University.
New York is going through a bitter cold snap with temperatures in the low-teens Fahrenheit and high winds, which according to one media account, stoked flames inside the building as residents flung open doors and windows.
Wherever fire hoses sprayed, the ground was covered with sheets of ice, according to an NY1 reporter.
One witness, Rafael Gonzalez, who lives across the street from the building, told television station WCBS-TV, an affiliate of CBS News, he saw some youths on a fire escape of the burning building as the fire raged.
“What woke me up was the smoke, because I thought it was my building,” he said.
More than 160 firefighters responded to the four-alarm blaze, the New York City Fire Department said.
Pictures posted on Twitter by the fire department showed two fire trucks with aerial ladders extended to the upper floors of a brick building bathed in flood lights, and firefighters on the fire escape outside what appeared to be a second- or third-floor unit.
The number of civilian fire fatalities in New York City last year dropped to 48, the fewest in the 100 years since record-keeping began, the FDNY said on its website.