FORDHAM HEIGHTS, the Bronx — As the death toll from a Bronx fire rose to a number not seen in New York in decades, resident Nikeya Gonzalez felt lucky to be alive.
At least 17 people, including eight children, died in a fire Sunday at 333 East 181st Street, officials said. Mayor Eric Adams revised the death toll at a Monday briefing.
“My whole house was nothing but black,” Gonzalez said.
Her 6th floor apartment filled with smoke Sunday morning as a fire raged beneath her. People from the upper floors of the Bronx building had taken refuge in her apartment, as they waited for help.
“Once the fire department got there and they was able to get us out, they said follow the stairs until you see light,” Gonzalez said.
She said they found their way down the back stairs to fresh air and freedom.
Juan Fernadez, who works nearby, said he walked over to the building when he saw the flames and smoke.
Firefighters had arrived and, “…they were also bringing people down the ladder that were unconscious. You could tell it looked like the smoke got them,” he said.
Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said severe smoke inhalation caused most of the injuries and fatalities.
“This smoke extended the entire height of the building, completely unusual. Members found victims on every floor in stairwells and were taking them out in cardiac and respiratory arrest,” Commissioner Nigro said.
News photographers at the scene captured images of firefighters entering the upper floors of the burning building on a ladder, multiple limp children being given oxygen after being carried from the building and evacuees with their faces covered in soot.
Some residents, trapped in their apartments, broke windows for air and stuffed wet towels under their doors. One man rescued by firefighters said he’d become numb to fire alarms because of frequent false alarms.
Building resident Luis Rosa said he was awakened Sunday by a fire alarm, but dismissed it at first, thinking it was one of the building’s periodic false alarms.
But when a notification popped up on his phone, he and his mother began to worry. By then, smoke began wafting into his 13th-floor apartment and he heard sirens in the distance.
He opened the front door, but the smoke had gotten too thick for an escape, he said.
“Once I opened the door, I couldn’t even see that far down the hallway,” Rosa told The Associated Press. “So I said, OK, we can’t run down the stairs because if we run down the stairs, we’re going to end up suffocating.”
“All we could do was wait,” he said.
Another resident, Vernessa Cunningham said she raced home from church after getting an alert on her cellphone that the building was on fire.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was in shock,” Cunningham, 60, said from a nearby school where some residents gathered. “I could see my apartment. The windows were all busted out. And I could see flames coming from the back of the building.”
Nigro compared the severity of the fire to the Happy Land social club fire, which killed 87 people in 1990 when man set fire to the building after getting into an argument with his former girlfriend and being thrown out of the club.
Sunday’s blaze came just days after a Philadelphia house fire killed 12 people — including eight children — was the deadliest fire at a U.S. residential apartment building since 2017 when 13 people died in an apartment in the Bronx neighborhood of New York City.
Editor’s note: Mayor Eric Adams announced a revised, slightly lower death toll on Monday afternoon.