‘This should’ve been prevented’: Displaced residents experience sorrow, anger in Bronx fire aftermath

Photo Jan 09, 11 10 09 AM
FDNY firefighters administer oxygen to a victim of the five-alarm fire in the Fordham Heights section of the Bronx that captured the eyes of the nation on Sunday, Jan. 9.
Photo Lloyd Mitchell

For nearly 52 years, the Twins Parks North West complex defined the skyline of the Fordham Heights section of the Bronx. On Sunday, the building was still standing but its charred exterior and smashed windows defined an afternoon of great trauma — loss of life, damage and home.

From loss to hopelessness to anger, displaced tenants of the now-tattered Twin Parks North West complex — the 19-floor high-rise apartment complex that was the center of a fire in which 17 people, including eight children, perished on Sunday — are grappling with a range of emotions in the aftermath of one of the deadliest fires in New York City’s history.

EMS and FDNY personnel provide oxygen to a victim rescued from the horrific fire in the Bronx on Sunday. Photo Lloyd Mitchell

Dozens of tenants still remain hospitalized throughout the city and Westchester “fighting for their lives,” with one Bronx area nurse telling the Bronx Times, she “wanted to quit” her 11-year career as a nurse after having to witness two deceased children from the fire. More than 100 families are homeless, with very little direction or timetables for when they might be rehoused.

As the city rallied around displaced tenants hoping to rebuild, neighbors and most, if not all, lost a piece of what they consider a home on Sunday. On Monday, FDNY officials pointed to malfunctions in both a space heater and a faulty self-closing apartment door that caused the initial fire to break out on the building’s third floor.

According to fire officials, there were several space heaters inside the duplex apartment where the fire started, and one of those heaters was reportedly left on for days.

Blown out windows are visible at the Twin Parks North West complex in Fordham Heights. Sunday’s fire there was considered the worst in the city in more than 30 years. Photo Lloyd Mitchell

But some residents aren’t pointing fingers at space heaters or residents who used them, but rather the lack of follow-through from building management to address a litany of quality-of-life violations raised by Twins Parks North West tenants over the years.

“This should’ve been prevented,” said Yusupha Hamza, 39, who immigrated to the Bronx from the Gambia in 2017 to live in the building’s fourth-floor apartment. “But instead, I could hear mothers crying out for their babies to be saved, the smell of smoke won’t ever leave my nose, and really good people lost loved ones and some lost the place they call home.”

The 52-year-old building is owned by Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC, which is comprised of a consortium of developers — Belveron Partners, the LIHC Investment Group and The Camber Property Group. A spokesperson told the Bronx Times on Monday that, while all doors in the complex are self-closing, there were “no open violations or complaints related to self-closing doors at the property.”

Displaced tenants stand in shock after experiencing one the worst fires the city has seen since the 1990s. Photo Lloyd Mitchell

One of the co-founders of The Camber Property group, Rick Gropper was appointed to Mayor Eric Adams’ transition team for housing issues before the Brooklyn Democrat took office this year.

In 2o17, when an apartment fire in the Belmont section of the Bronx killed 13 people, it necessitated requirements for self-closing doors that open into corridors or stairways for apartment buildings, hotels, nursing homes and other multiple-dwelling units. Owners were required to install such doors by this past July.

However, there were instances in both 2017 and 2019, according to violations filed with the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development that some automatic self-closing doors — which is a requirement for adherence to fire code — did not work.

A few residents told the Bronx Times both on Sunday and Monday that they don’t think either of the building’s self-closing doors have a functional door-stopper that would’ve kept the door to the apartment where the fire originated shut.

If functional, fire safety experts say that the self-closing doors help curb the spread of a fire. But as residents evacuated a building that billowed with fire and smoke within an hour of igniting, that door where the fire started remained ajar amid the frantic evacuation, allowing the fire and smoke to exacerbate and spread throughout the complex.

“Opening windows, leaving doors ajar as they flee, it’s one of the biggest mistakes people make in fires,” said Taylor Vecsey, who is a fire captain and EMS medical technician for Long Island’s Bridgehampton Fire Department. “If the door was closed, the fire’s spread would not have been as bad.”

“I can’t get the screams out of my head … I can’t look at my home anymore without thinking about how many people died, and how much of it could have been prevented,”said tenant Omar Baldeh, 17. Photo Adrian Childress

Mayor Adams said the city has opened an investigation into the Bronx apartment building. In addition to looking into the cause of the fire and how it spread so quickly, he said the city would investigate whether self-closing doors were properly functioning.

In addition to the violations regarding the self-closing doors, the building management had been notorious, according to residents, for not addressing residential complaints regarding lack of heat and hot water, among other complaints. Before Sunday’s fire, there were 18 open violations against the property, with 174 total violations levied since new ownership took over in 2020, records filed with the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development show.

Throughout its 123 building portfolio, Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC has a total of 11,801 residential units, but within just the last three years had received 2,468 heat and hot water complaints submitted to the city’s 311 service, according to NYC-based tenant-organizing service JustFix NYC.

Hamza said that since he’s been a tenant of Twin Parks North West, there had “always” been issues with sufficient heat in apartments during the city’s cold spells, and doesn’t entirely blame the use of the space heater that started the fire. Instead, in his eyes, fault lies mainly with building management.

Firefighters escort tenants to safety after smoke consumed the 19-story building in the Bronx and claimed the lives of 17, including eight children. Photo Adrian Childress

“The tragedy in this is that this isn’t something that happened in just one day, this has been years and years of neglecting the needs of tenants,” said Hamza, who said he is unsure of his living plans following the fire. “There are families starting (GoFundMe) fundraisers for the family members and friends that this ownership group and this city failed to protect. They should be the ones covering funeral expenses.”

Last year, more than 30 complaints were filed by residents of the Twin Parks North West over poor living conditions from city-banned lead paint in various units to invasive mice and roach infestations through the 19-story complex.

In 2013, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo had given the landlord of the Twins Parks North West property roughly $38 million in tax-exempt bonds and $1.6 million per year in tax credits to refurbish apartment units and also ensure upgrades to security systems and the lobby, but not fire safety or equipment upgrades.

While building officials said that there were “no known issues” with the smoke alarms in the Twins Parks North West building, residents told the Bronx Times on Sunday that the fire alarm would get “triggered” at random times, and that it could’ve played a role in residents not knowing if the alarm was an emergency signal.

The spokesperson with Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC said that they are working on addressing any issues stemming from the fire, and that anyone who needs long-term housing due to the fire will be accommodated “without question.”

But for some, after the tragic events of Sunday, home won’t be the same.

The Twins Parks North West courtyard, 1973. Aerial photograph looking east, with Webster Avenue in background. Photo courtesy Lo-Yi Chan

When Twins Parks North West was constructed in 1972, it was hailed as a first-of-its kind housing venture in New York City. The building once lauded for its humane subsidized housing, also was a refuge for immigrant and Muslim communities from The Gambia and elsewhere.

First-generation Bronxite Omar Baldeh, 17, said when his family moved from Gambia to the housing project in the late 1990s, it was a different quality of living than what he later experienced growing up in the complex.

“My family used to tell me how nice it was to have an apartment near the mosques and in this beautiful Gambian community,” said Baldeh, whose mother is still in the hospital due to the effects of smoke inhalation from Sunday. “But as I started growing up, I realized that things would stay broken forever, and we would have very cold winter nights without heat for months, and it felt like landlords or whoever don’t care about us.”

For Baldeh, who lives on the sixth floor of the building, he continues to relive the terrible memories and haunting visuals from Sunday’s fire.

“I can’t get the screams out of my head, I can’t get the sirens out of my head, I can’t look at my home anymore without thinking about how many people died, and how much of it could have been prevented,” he said. “It’s going to be tough going home, and I hope I don’t have to (go home) without my mom.”

Sunday’s fire was the second time in a week that a massive fire ravaged a low-income apartment building. In Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood, a fire broke out in a duplex row house — which is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority — that claimed the lives of 12 people, nine of them children.

Displaced tenants of 333 E. 181 St. board a bus to take them to a local hotel on Sunday night. Photo Adrian Childress

In both incidents, fire safety officials believe the fires were not only preventable, but should be a wake-up call for increased fire safety legislation. There is currently no federal law requiring sprinklers and smoke detectors to be retrofitted in existing high-rises despite the fact that advocates have been pushing for it over the last several decades.

Chief Ronald Jon Siarnicki, the executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and a former Maryland fire chief, has been vocal about how lack of adequate fire protection in high-rises not only puts residents and the public at risk, but also is causing collateral damage to first responders. Sinarcki believes that one way to prevent the tragedies that led to loss of life and home in Philadelphia and the Bronx is if local law required adequate fire protection in buildings.
“It shouldn’t take tragedies like this to enforce the minimum national fire and life safety codes and standards, especially when we’ve known for decades how dangerous this is for citizens and first responders,” Siarnicki said. “On top of the unbearable loss for the residents and communities impacted, there is an incredible toll on firefighters too. It’s hard to get over the sights and smells of responding to tragedies like this. There is a physical and mental toll — on top of the toxic environment firefighters are exposed to responding to these fires.”
Firefighters battled a five-alarm blaze on Sunday that engulfed a 19-story apartment complex in the Bronx. A faulty space heater and self-closing door are what fire officials are pointing to for the tragic loss of life. Photo Adrian Childress
Siarnicki said that for New York City’s trademark multifamily and high-rise complexes to adhere to fire code they should have functional smoke alarms and sprinkler systems and residents should be given two possible escape routes. Fire safety advocates hope that the $56 billion currently included in the federal Build Back Better plan to improve fire protection in public housing authorities could make a big difference.
Additionally, fire safety experts hope that there will be an eventual approval of The Public Housing Fire Safety Act — which aims to hand out $25 million in grants every year for a decade to upgrade fire protection including fire alarms and sprinklers in public housing — that was introduced to Congress in 2019.
“A minimum national safety standard is not optional, nor should we allow it to be ignored by those that are responsible for the enforcement of minimum fire and life safety codes and standards,” said Shane Ray, president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA) and a former fire chief in Pleasant View, Tennessee.

Reach Robbie Sequeira at rsequeira@schnepsmedia.com or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.