Bronx Building Residents Say Fire Alarm Often Went Off, Ignored Sound Before Deadly Blaze

Residents in the Bronx apartment building that caught fire January 9, 2022, said the fire alarms would frequently go off and they ignored the initial warning because they thought the smoke detectors were a false alarm.

The 19-story high-rise caught fire on Sunday killing 19 people, including nine children, making it the deadliest fire in three decades, authorities said. Dozens remain in the hospital, and 13 remain in critical care.

Smoke alarms were located throughout the building, but several residents said they were used to hearing false alarms and initially didn't think anything of it. It wasn't until some residents saw smoke and heard cries for help that they realized this wasn't a false alarm.

"So many of us were used to hearing that fire alarm go off, it was like second nature to us," said resident Karen Dejesus.

Some residents reported they couldn't see anything because of how thick the smoke was. The only thing they could do was wait for firefighters to rescue them.

Luis Rosa lived on the 13th-floor and said he also believed it was another false alarm, but once he opened the door of his apartment to see what was going on, all he saw was smoke.

Rosa didn't think he could run down the stairs without suffocating. "All we could do was wait," he said.

Other residents tried to escape the flames but passed out from smoke inhalation. Firefighters found victims on every floor and several were in respiratory and cardiac arrest, said Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro.

Investigators determined the fire was caused by a malfunctioning electric space heater.

Faulty Fire Alarms in Apartment Building
Some residents of the burned Bronx apartment building said they ignored the fire alarms because they were frequently going off before the incident. Above, emergency first responders remain at the scene after an intense fire at a 19-story residential building that erupted in the morning on January 9, 2022, in the Bronx borough of New York City. Scott Heins/Getty Images

Mayor Eric Adams called it an "unspeakable tragedy" at a news conference near the scene.

"This tragedy is not going to define us," Adams said. "It is going to show our resiliency."

Adams lowered the death toll, saying that two fewer people were killed than originally thought. Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said patients were taken to seven hospitals and "there was a bit of a double count."

The dead included children as young as 4 years old, said City Council Member Oswald Feliz.

The flames damaged only a small part of the building, but smoke poured through the apartment's open door and turned stairwells—the only method of escape in a building too tall for fire escapes—into dark, ash-choked death traps.

Adams said the building had self-closing doors and that investigators were looking into whether a door malfunctioned.

"There may have been a maintenance issue with this door. And that is going to be part of the ... ongoing investigation," the mayor told ABC's "Good Morning America."

Limp children were given oxygen after they were carried out. Some who fled had soot-covered faces.

Firefighters continued making rescues even after their air supplies ran out, Adams said.

"Their oxygen tanks were empty, and they still pushed through the smoke," he said.

An investigation was underway to determine how the fire spread and whether anything could have been done to prevent or contain the blaze, Nigro said.

Large, new apartment buildings are required to have sprinkler systems and interior doors that swing shut automatically to contain smoke and deprive fires of oxygen, but those rules do not apply to thousands of the city's older buildings.

Dejesus said she thought it was a false alarm. "Not until I actually saw the smoke coming in the door did I realize it was a real fire, and I began to hear people yelling, 'Help! Help! Help!'"

Dejesus, who was in her two-floor apartment with her son and 3-year-old granddaughter, immediately called family members and ran to get towels to put under the door. But smoke began coming down her stairs before the 56-year-old resident could get the towels, so the three ran to the back of the apartment.

"It was so scary," she said. "Just the fact that we're in a building that's burning and you don't know how you're going to get out. You don't know if the firefighters are going to get to you in time."

Firefighters broke down her door and helped all three out the window and down a ladder to safety. Dejesus clung to her rescuer on the way down.

Hassane Badr told The New York Times that two of his siblings, both children, were killed and that a 25-year-old cousin remained unaccounted for. Badr, 28, waited at Jacobi Medical Center for news about his 12-year-old brother, who was suffering from serious smoke inhalation. A 5-year-old sister was at another hospital.

"I'm thinking like I'm dreaming, this is not true. You hear people crying, my goodness," Badr told the newspaper. "To be honest, I'm not believing it right now."

Badr's family, 11 people from Mali, lived in a three-bedroom apartment on the third floor.

Mahamadou Toure struggled to put his grief into words outside the hospital emergency room where his 5-year-old daughter and the girl's teenage brother died, according to the Daily News.

"Right now my heart is very ...," Toure trailed off while speaking to the New York Daily News. "It's OK. I give it to God."

The fire was New York City's deadliest since 1990, when 87 people died in an arson at the Happy Land social club, also in the Bronx. The borough was also the scene of a deadly apartment building fire in 2017 that killed 13 people and a 2007 fire, also started by a space heater, that killed nine.

Sunday's fire happened just days after 12 people, including eight children, were killed in a house fire in Philadelphia.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

bronx fire deadly heater apartment
Firefighters work outside an apartment building after a fire in the Bronx, Sunday, January 9, 2022, in New York. Associated Press/Yuki Iwamura