NEW YORK: A three-year-old boy playing with stove burners accidentally ignited the fire that ripped through a New York apartment building, killing 12 people including four children, the city’s fire department chief said on Friday.
The blaze broke out on Thursday evening in a 25-apartment building near the Bronx Zoo, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the US financial capital.
Four people remain in critical condition following the inferno, which Mayor Bill de Blasio called the “worst fire tragedy we have seen in this city in at least a quarter century.”
“We found that this fire started in a kitchen on the first floor,” fire commissioner Daniel Nigro told reporters.
“It started from a young boy, three and a half years old, playing with the burners on the stove. The fire got started, the mother was not aware of it — she was alerted by the young man screaming.”
The boy’s mother fled with her two children, leaving the door to the apartment open — allowing the flames to shoot up the stairway and quickly spread in the building, as desperate residents fled to fire escapes, seeking rescue.
“The stairway acted like a chimney,” Nigro said. “It took the fire so quickly upstairs that people had very little time to react.”
Authorities said firefighters rescued 12 people from the building and four people were in the hospital in critical condition. More than 160 firefighters responded to the four-alarm blaze.
New York City is undergoing a bitter cold snap with temperatures in the low-teens Fahrenheit (minus teens Celsius) and high winds, which according to one media report, stoked flames inside the building as residents flung open doors and windows.
Wherever fire hoses were sprayed, the ground was covered with sheets of ice, according to a NY1 reporter.
Two of the dead were found in a bathtub, according to cable news channel NY1. “People were screaming, and that’s how we knew there was trouble,” eyewitness Kimberly Wilkins told WCBS television. “People were screaming, ‘Fire! Help! Fire! Help!”
The building is in a poor section of the Bronx, where roughly one-half of residents earn less than the US poverty threshold, according to the US Census Bureau.
One witness, Rafael Gonzalez, who lives across the street from the engulfed building, told WCBS he saw some youths on a fire escape of the burning building.
“What woke me up was the smoke, because I thought it was my building,” he said.
The building is in the Belmont section of the Bronx, a primarily residential, close-knit neighbourhood known as the “Little Italy” of the borough, near Fordham University and the Bronx Zoo.
It was the deadliest fire in the city since an arsonist torched a Bronx nightclub in 1990, killing 87 people inside the venue that did not have fire exits, alarms or sprinklers, the New York Times reported.
In 2007, 10 immigrants from Mali, including nine children, died after a space heater caught fire in a Bronx building.
The number of civilian fire fatalities in New York City in 2016 dropped to 48, the fewest in the 100 years since record-keeping began, the fire department said on its website. Data on 2017 fire fatalities was not immediately available.
— AFP/ Reuters