Residents trapped by the flames climbed onto windows to get air, and placed wet towels underneath doors. Smoke rose from the lower-floor apartment where it started. The survivors described how they fled in panic down darkened corridors and up stairs, barely breathing.
After being evacuated, several children with limps were seen receiving oxygen. The faces of the evacuatees were covered with soot.
According to Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro, firefighters found victims on every floor. Many were in cardiac or respiratory arrest. He said that some could not escape due to the smoke volume.
Some residents claimed that they ignored the wailing smoke alarms at first because false alarms were common in the 120-unit building built in the 1970s for affordable housing.
Over fifty-six people were injured and thirteen were in critical condition. Nigro stated that most victims suffered from severe smoke inhalation.
Mayor Eric Adams stated that firefighters continued to rescue people even when their air supplies were exhausted.
Adams stated that even though their oxygen tanks were empty, they still pushed through smoke.
Investigators believe the fire started on the second and third floors in a duplex apartment.
The flames did not spread beyond the one-unit and adjacent hallway. Nigro stated that the doors to the apartment and to the stairwell were left open, which allowed smoke to quickly spread throughout the building.
New York City fire codes require that apartment doors be spring loaded and shut automatically. However, it wasn't immediately clear if this building was included in those regulations.
Sandra Clayton, a building resident, grabbed Mocha her dog and ran for her lives when she saw the hallway filled with smoke. She heard people shouting "Get out!" Get out!
Clayton, 61, claimed she crawled down a darkened staircase clutching Mocha. She couldn't see because the smoke was so thick, but she could still hear her neighbors crying and wailing nearby.
Clayton recalled her experience at a hospital for smoke inhalation, saying that she just ran down the steps and people were falling on me screaming.
Her dog fell from her grasp during the chaos and was later discovered dead on the stairs.
Around 11 o'clock, around 200 firefighters responded at East 181st Street.
Jose Henriquez, an immigrant to the Dominican Republic, lives on the 10th Floor. He said that the fire alarms of the building would often go off but then turn out not to be true.
Henriquez stated in Spanish that "it seems like today, the people went off but they didn't pay attention."
After realizing that the smoke from the halls would overwhelm them, he and his family decided to stay. They placed a towel under the door.
Luis Rosa stated that he initially believed it was a false alarm. The smoke had gotten so thick that he couldn’t see down the hallway when he opened the door to his apartment on the 13th floor. "So I said, okay, we can't go down the stairs. If we do, we'll end up suffocating."
He said, "All we could do is wait."
Stefan Ringel (a senior advisor to the mayor) said that most of the children who died were aged 16 or younger. Adams stated at a press conference that many of the victims were originally from Gambia, a West African nation. Many survivors were taken to temporary shelter at a school nearby.
The brown, grimy apartment building towers above a cluster of brick buildings, all older and smaller, on Webster Avenue. This is one of the main thoroughfares in Bronx.
Sunday afternoon saw nothing but a black hole in the window where the fire had started.
U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres (a Democrat representing the area) stated that "there's no guarantee there's a functioning fire alarm in every apartment or in every common area." "Most of these buildings do not have a sprinkler system. The Bronx's housing stock is more vulnerable to fires than the rest of the city's housing stock.
Torres and Nigro both compared the severity of the fire to that at Happy Land in 1990, where 87 people died when a man set the building ablaze after a fight with his ex-girlfriend and was thrown out the Bronx club.
Sunday's death toll from the fire was the highest since the Happy Land fire. It was also the highest after the September 11 terror attacks.
This was also the deadliest fire in a residential apartment building in the United States for many years. According to data from National Fire Protection Association, 13 people were killed in an apartment building in the Bronx in 2017.
The fire began with a 3-year old boy playing with stove burners. It also spread due to the fact that an apartment door had been left open without a locking mechanism. New York City saw several changes after the fire, including plans by the fire department to teach fire safety to children and their parents.
The fire that erupted on Sunday came just days after the deaths of 12 people, eight of them children, in a Philadelphia house fire. 16 people died in a fire at an apartment building in Tennessee in 1989.