Fleeting choices, circumstances doomed 17 in Bronx fire

Tuesday, January 11, 2022
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Workers in protective clothing sweep outside apartment building which suffered the city’s deadliest fire in three decades, in the Bronx borough of New York, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. A malfunctioning electric space heater apparently started the fire Sunday in the 19-story building in the Bronx, fire officials said AP PHOTO

NEW YORK (AP) — It started as just another January morning, the damp chill prompting a family on the third floor of a drafty Bronx apartment tower to run a space heater for extra warmth, as residents had done countless times before.

In the moment, that decision hardly deserved a second thought.

Soon, though, it would prove the first in a series of fleeting choices and troubling circumstances that combined to fuel a staggering tragedy. If only the heat inside apartment 3N had been sufficient. If only the family, fleeing a fire sparked by the malfunctioning space heater, had pulled the door closed behind them. If only their neighbors, conditioned to ignore frequent alarms that nearly always proved false, had not disregarded them this time. If only the blaze hadn’t started near the bottom of the building, quickly turning the structure into a chimney that funneled impenetrable black smoke up stairwells and down hallways as scores struggled to escape.

If only so many seemingly minor factors had not aligned, then 17 people, including eight children, might now be alive.

“I dropped on my knees and started to pray to God and said, ‘Please help me. Please help us,’” said Tysena Jacobs. 68, who was making breakfast in her 15th-floor apartment when acrid smoke started billowing under the front door. “It was like a nightmare.”

Most nightmares, though, are solitary.

This one, all too real, was endured by hundreds spread over 19 floors -- taxi drivers and teachers, the elderly and newborns, many of them west African immigrants. From the outside, their brown block building set on a cement corner appeared anonymous. But inside it was a community, only vertical. That amplified both the damage and the grief.

If only, after an almost eerily mild December, the weekend’s weather in New York had not turned cold. Each winter, some apartments in the Twin Parks tower stayed comfortable while others did not, forcing residents to improvise, said Stefan Beauvogui, a 67-year-old immigrant from Guinea who lives on the fourth floor. On Sunday, he and his wife had space heaters running in both bedrooms and their sitting room because the building’s heat ”don’t work for nothing.” He said he had complained, but it hadn’t been fixed.

Fathia Touray’s family was the first to arrive at Twin Parks from the west African country of Gambia in the mid-1980s. They and other new arrivals bought space heaters. But sometimes her family had to turn on the oven or boil pots of water to keep the chill at bay, said Touray. She moved out in 2005 but her family remained, forced to flee Sunday’s blaze.