They came from countries in West Africa, nearly all of them from Gambia, and settled in Twin Parks Towers Northeast, a 19-story apartment building full of working class families from the region and Latin America.
Some of them were born here to parents from Gambia, volunteering in local community groups, attending local mosques, enrolling in local schools and colleges hoping for a future in social work, economics and justice.
Those dreams came to an end on Sunday, Jan. 9, when a fire broke out in the residential tower killing 17 people, including several members of two families.
Fire Department officials said a malfunctioning electric space heater was to blame. The rapid spread of smoke through two doors left open — despite a law requiring they spring closed — claimed most of the victims’ brief lives.
Eight were children; the youngest was 2 years old. One had celebrated his 12th birthday the day before the deadly fire.
Police officials identified the victims of the fire on Tuesday. These are their stories.
Sera Janneh, 27
Loved ones described Janneh as a devoted sister and friend – a cheerleader to those around her and “a good person to be around,” her sister Mareama told the New York Times.
Janneh was a psychology major at Lehman College and wanted to be a social worker, her sister told the Times. She added that Sera was an active member of the Gambian Youth Organization, a community group located steps from Twin Parks that serves the neighborhood and the borough’s west African communities at large.
Janneh collapsed while trying to escape their sixth-floor apartment. She is survived by her parents and three siblings, including the youngest, Aisha, who is still in the hospital battling injuries from the fire, the Janneh family wrote in a GoFundMe post.
“She was a nice woman,” her father told the DailyMail. “She was very caring, helping — she listened to us.”
Seydou Toure, 12
Toure was an 8th-grade student at the Angelo Patri Middle School, located next door to Twin Parks.
His classmate and friend of three years, Chanel Álvarez, 13, described him as “a bit of a troublemaker, but a very good kid” at a nighttime vigil in front of the fire-damaged building on Tuesday.
That afternoon, more than two dozen students, along with teachers and school staff, walked out in front of Twin Parks to pay tribute to their classmate, wearing laminated badges with his picture, and lighting candles at a makeshift memorial for Toure.
“I loved him dearly,” the school’s principal, Angel Ortega, told the New York Times. “He always had that smile.”
Haowa Mahamadou, 5
Mahamadou was one of at least four siblings caught in the Jan. 9 blaze, according to an online fundraising page set up by her aunt, Khadidja Timbaye, for the family.
Two other Mahamadou children were treated in critical condition, Timbaye wrote.
The Dukureh Family
Haji Dukuray, 49; Haja Dukureh, 37; Mustapha Dukureh, 12; Mariam Dukureh, 11; Fatoumata Dukureh, 5
Haja Dukureh, 37, and her husband, Haji Dukuray, 49, moved from Gambia more than a decade ago, settling in The Bronx, according to Fatoumata Dukureh, Haja’s aunt. They had three children in the United States: Mustapha, 12; Mariam, 11; and Fatoumata, 5, who shares a name with her mother’s aunt.
The couple worked hard to support their children — Haja as a home health aide and Haji at a local Kentucky Fried Chicken, said Fatoumata. They regularly sent money back to relatives in Gambia.
The Dukurehs lived in an apartment on the 19th floor of the ill-fated building on 181st Street, joining an enclave of West African immigrants.
“This is a very close-knit community. We are predominantly from one town in Gambia called Alunghare, so we are all family,” said Haji Dukureh, Haja’s uncle, speaking with ABC News.
The family was devoutly Muslim, and Haji frequented a nearby mosque to pray in the mornings. They celebrated Ramadan with Gambian-style chicken and jollof rice, prepared by Haja and eaten at night, when Muslims break their fast during the holy month.
The children displayed distinct personalities, said Fatoumata, Haja’s aunt. “Mustapha was very smart. He would always read and help others with reading… Mariam was very sweet. She looked like her mom and was always helping her mom.”
The younger Fatoumata had just celebrated a birthday. She was quiet and shy like her dad, family told THE CITY.
The Dukurehs perished attempting to escape the building when it filled with smoke, relative Hawa Dukuray told the New York Times. “I’m heartbroken,” she said.
The Drammeh Family
Fatoumata Drammeh, 50; Fatoumala Drammeh, 21; Nyumaaisha Drammeh, 19; Muhammed Drammeh, 12
Fatoumata Drammeh, 50, and her husband, Ishak Drammeh, 57, moved to Twin Parks from Gambia and lived on the 15th floor for nearly 20 years.
Fatoumata and three of the couple’s children, Fatoumala, 21; Nyumaaisha, 19; and Muhammed, 12, were killed in the fire. They are survived by Ishak and their daughter Fatima, 23, and another son, Yagub, 16, who remains in critical condition.
Ishak was out of town on business when the fire broke out on Sunday and the rest of the family had celebrated Muhammed’s 12th birthday the day before, at an indoor trampoline park in Queens, the New York Times reported.
Nyumaaisha, who went by Aisha, was set to begin college next month. Her cousin Fatma Barow, 46, said in an interview on Monday that she wanted to become a lawyer. “Aisha wanted to help others, I said ‘OK, I will pray for you,’” Barow said. “She was a beautiful soul. God, so lovely.”
Fatoumala was set to graduate from the University of Buffalo soon and studied political science. A statement from the university issued on Wednesday said she was an active member of the school’s Educational Opportunity Program. She was also the vice president of Powerful United Ladies Striving for Excellence — or PULSE — an on-campus networking group for women of color, said Brian F. Hamluk, the university’s vice president of Student Life.
“She was a very good girl,” Ishak, her father, told the New York Times. “Muhammad was a good boy, too. Nyumaaisha was a good girl.”
Tawana Davis, a next-door neighbor of the Drammehs, said she saw the family grow up and settle into life in the U.S.
“They lived here basically the whole time I lived here. I saw those kids as babies. I taught [Ishak and Fatoumata] to speak English,” she said, adding that Muhammed and her grandson were friends. “Everyone on the floor, we were like family.”
“They are a very nice family, very well respected,” she said. “They were just the best people.”
Fatoumata Tunkara, 43, and Omar Jambang, 6
A mother of five, Fatoumata “Chakou” Tunkara, 43, was visiting a friend inside of the Fordham Heights apartment along with her 6-year-old son, Omar Jambang, when the fire broke out, killing the pair, according to the Daily News. Native to Soma, Gambia, a town roughly five miles south of the Gambia River, Tunkara’s family is raising funds to send her and her son’s remains to their homeland, a family member wrote in a GoFundMe.
Isatou Jabbie, 31 and Hagi Jawara, 47
Hagi Jawara worked jobs in construction and at a fried chicken restaurant, and his wife, Isatou Jabbie, was a home health aide, his brother Yusupha told the New York Post. The Gambian couple are survived by their four children, ages 6 to 15, who were visiting relatives in the West African country at the time of the fire, the New York Post reported. They were set to reunite with their parents at the end of the month.
Yusupha described his brother as “jovial.”
“He was always smiling and laughing with everyone, never had a disagreement with anybody,” he told the Post.
Ousmane Konteh, 2
The youngest of the fire’s victims, Ousmane Konteh, was staying at a relative’s apartment on the 19th floor when the smoke engulfed the Bronx building Sunday, a family member posted on GoFundMe. The toddler was being cared for by a relative while his mom went to work. He is survived by his mother, Fatoumata Sankanu, and three siblings.