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Deadly Bronx Blaze Prompts Scrutiny of Open Door That Spread Smoke

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Mayor Eric Adams visit the scene of a deadly fire on East 181st Street in the Bronx, January 9, 2022.

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

At least 19 people, including nine children, are dead after a fire broke out in a high-rise building on E 181st Street in Fordham Heights late on Sunday morning.

Up to 32 more are in hospitals across the borough receiving treatment for critical injuries stemming from the fire, Mayor Eric Adams said Sunday evening.

Though the cause of the fire is under active investigation, it almost certainly stemmed from a malfunctioning electronic space heater at a duplex unit that spans the second and third floors, Adams said.

“The marshals are here, they will give us a thorough investigation to determine exactly what took place, and what we can do better not to have this repeated,” Adams said.

Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said a door left ajar enabled the smoke to permeate the 19-story tower, known as Twin Parks Northwest. 

A city law passed in 2018 after an earlier Bronx tragedy killed 12 required all apartment and stairway doors leading to corridors to be self-closing as of July 2021. A spokesperson for the building’s owners said that the building does have self-closing doors.

The mayor’s office set up a temporary gathering place for residents and survivors at PS 391, next door to Twin Parks Northwest. On Sunday night, dozens of families ate donated meals and received assistance from the Red Cross and the city Office of Emergency Management.

Speaking alongside Adams, Gov. Kathy Hochul said she met with every single family at the school — and vowed to create a compensation fund for victims of the fire, many of whom are immigrants from west Africa.

Kelly Magee, spokesperson for ownership joint venture Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC, said in a statement: “We are devastated by the unimaginable loss of life caused by this profound tragedy. We are cooperating fully with the Fire Department and other city agencies as they investigate its cause, and we are doing all we can to assist our residents.

“Our thoughts are with the families and friends of those who lost their lives or were injured, and we are here to support them as we recover from this horrific fire.”

‘So Many Different Managements’

After the fire broke out in the third-floor duplex unit, smoke and fire spread quickly through the open door, according to Nigro — who said the possibility the door did not shut properly is under investigation by the fire marshalls. 

Residents who spoke with THE CITY said the building had a faulty alarm system for years, going off at all hours of the day for false alarms, so it caught them off guard when the blaze on Sunday turned out to be all too real.

“Nobody paid attention because they were so used to it ringing all the time,” 51-year-old Tawanna Davis, who was rescued by firefighters from her apartment on the 15th floor, said from a nearby corner store on 181st Street and Valentine Avenue.

P.S. 391 on Folin Street in The Bronx was transformed into a Red Cross meeting and relief site for victims of the fire that broke out Sunday morning on East 181st Street.

Claudia Irizarry Aponte/THE CITY

Retiree Miguel Henríquez, 67, also ignored the alarms initially — until smoke began to fill his apartment on the 13th floor, triggering an asthma attack that made him faint in the elevator, he said. 

He revived in the elevator and was escorted out of the building by firefighters, he said. Henríquez was in good spirits on Sunday evening, reunited at the school with family members who live on a different floor in the building.

“The smoke was suffocating,” he said in Spanish. “Thank God I am alive.”

The 1970s-era tower on East 181st Street is owned by a group of investors – LIHC Investment Group, Belveron Partners and Camber Property Group – who bought it as part of a $166 million deal in early 2020 for eight rent-regulated buildings in the borough.

The building, which records show is part of the Mitchell-Lama state affordable housing program, also receives state funding through the federal Section 8 program, which helps subsidize rents for low-income tenants.

Camber’s co-founder, Rick Gropper, was named as a part of Adams’s transition team for housing issues before Adams took office, the New York Times reported. The other principal in Camber is Andrew Moelis, son of influential for-profit affordable housing developer Ron Moelis.

The investment venture took over the property from Cammeby’s International Group, a real estate firm whose affordable housing and other holdings include apartments built by Donald Trump’s father, Fred.

The ownership turnover did not go unnoticed by Twin Parks residents.

“Now we have so many different managements we don’t even know what [it’s] called,” Davis, who has lived in the building for 15 years, said. “They change the building and name like they change underwear.”

Yamina Rodríguez, who along with her adult daughters was reunited with her husband at PS 391, urged the city to hold the management company accountable.

“They’re focused on when to collect their checks, and who lives in which apartment. I have to fix everything in my apartment” the 51-year-old said in Spanish. “I hope they learn their lesson from now on — those alarms can’t go off every day for no reason, because then something like this happens.”

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