Health Care Worker Didn't Recognize Brother Brought Into ER After Bronx Building Fire

A New York health care worker said he didn't recognize his brother on a gurney heading to the St. Barnabas Hospital ER for injuries he received during Sunday's Bronx building fire.

Yusupha Jawara said he went to the scene of the fire when he heard the news to start helping EMS transport injured victims to the hospital since he lived near the apartment building.

Jawara said he glanced down and saw a man who looked similar to his brother Hagi, on a gurney headed to the ER but brushed it off because his brother lived on the 18th floor and the fire started on the third floor.

He started to get concerned because his brother and sister-in-law, Isatou, weren't answering their phones but he still believed they were both OK based on how high up their apartment was.

"Their neighbors on the higher floors never came out and they were safe, so I thought that maybe my brother also was safe in the apartment," Jawara said.

However, Jawara later saw Isatou's cell phone lying in the street and said he knew something wasn't right. His brother and his sister-in-law tried to escape the blaze by heading down the stairs filled with thick smoke but ultimately died.

"At that time, I didn't have the focus to know that it was him," Jawara said as his family prepares for a funeral.

The fire was caused by a malfunctioning electric space heater. A total of 17 people died, making it the city's deadliest fire in more than three decades.

ER Worker Didn't Recognize Brother, Bronx Fire
A health care worker said he didn't recognize his brother who was brought in for treatment after the Bronx building fire. Above, firefighters gather for a vigil in front of a Bronx apartment building a day after a fire swept through the complex killing at least 17 people and injuring dozens of others, many of them seriously on January 10, 2022 in New York City. The five-alarm NYC fire began around 11 am Sunday when a space heater caught fire inside of a duplex apartment. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

His brother fled to the United States in the 1990s as a refugee during the civil war in his homeland of Sierra Leone. He later married a Gambian woman, whose family had settled in the Bronx.

Now he and his family — and the community that has rallied together in tragedy — hope to give their loved ones closure.

The victims included eight children, three of them from one family that tried to make it down to safety but perished in the smoke.

Fire officials say the blaze damaged only a small part of the building, but smoke engulfed the complex after tenants fleeing the unit where the flames began left the apartment door open behind them in their hurry to escape.

Spring-loaded hinges that were supposed to shut the door automatically did not work. A second door also left open in a stairwell higher up acted as a flue, sucking smoke upward and blocking residents from escaping.

Among the dead were three children of Haja Dukuray and Haji Dukuray, originally from Gambia, according to Haji Dukuray, the uncle of Haja Dukuray. The uncle told The Associated Press he did not know if the children's parents survived.

"This is a very close-knit community. We are predominantly from one town in the Gambia called Alunghare, so we are all family," said Dukuray, who drove to the Bronx from his home in Delaware on Monday. "Most of the people here, we are all related in one way or the other."

Many people in the building were also members of the same congregation, he added, "so it's like one big family."

Gambia's president, Adama Barrow, expressed "profound sadness" about the loss of life.

"We are keenly following the developments through our embassy in the United States," Barrow said as he extended condolences to the families of the dead and wished speedy recoveries to those who were injured.

Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said the apartment's front door and a door on the 15th floor should have been self-closing and blunted the spread of smoke, but the doors stayed fully open. It was not clear if the doors failed mechanically or if they had been manually disabled.

Federal safety regulators at the Consumer Product Safety Commission have opened an investigation into the space heater.

In the chaos, relatives tried to find loved ones.

"We just want to have the deceased and place them in their final resting place," Dukuray said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.