The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board called for a “swift, thorough, and public investigation” into what caused the recent fire, as well as a probe into “the overcrowded housing conditions that drove the death toll.” The Housing Authority told the newspaper that, last year, 15 people were sharing a single unit in the building.
”The fire in Fairmount needs to be a wake-up call about the living conditions of Philadelphians—a city in which an estimated half of rental units are unlicensed, meaning that there is no way to know if they are up to code and safe for habitation,” the editorial board wrote. “Wednesday’s fire should also serve as a reminder of the unrelenting levels of resilience that Philadelphians—particularly Black Philadelphians—are forced to endure.”
And Black Philadelphians aren’t the only ones.
“Between 1999-2019 in the U.S., Black people were killed in ‘accidental’ residential fires at more than twice the rate of white people,” New York City author Jessie Singer tweeted. “Their deaths are not accidents, but the direct result of infrastructural negligence.”
Authorities in both Philadelphia and New York City have not painted a picture of negligent building owners in their descriptions of the fires. The Philadelphia Housing Authority, which oversees the Fairmount property, told ABC-affiliated WPVI-TV that smoke detectors at the property were functioning properly during the last building inspection in spring of 2021. The housing authority also claimed it was only aware of 14 people living in unit B during occupancy recertification last October and that the family who has occupied the unit for about a decade expanded over the years. Eighteen people actually occupied the unit at the time of the fire, and another eight lived in unit A, WPVI reported, adding that no city law limits the number of family members that can stay in one unit.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE) told the news station on Thursday that its national response team will be investigating the cause of the blaze “given the magnitude and scope of the fire.”
New York City Fire Department Commissioner Daniel Nigro said during a media briefing with state and local leaders that the Bronx blaze began in a bedroom of an apartment unit that spans the second and third floors of the building, Nigro said. “It started in a malfunctioning electric space heater,” he said. “That was the cause of the fire. The fire consumed that apartment that is on two floors and part of the hallway. The door to that apartment unfortunately when the residents left was left open and it did not close by itself.
“The smoke spread throughout the building, thus the tremendous loss of life and other people fighting for their lives right now in hospitals all over the Bronx.”
Warning: This footage shows the fire in progress and may be triggering for some viewers.
Nigro said the fire department is investigating where everyone was found, how the smoke traveled, and how marshals have determined the cause of the fire through physical evidence and first-hand accounts. He said a door to an upper stairwell was also left open but that the 19-story building had smoke alarms throughout and working heat and that the space heater was used as a supplement. “Smoke and heat travel upward. That we know,” Nigro said. “That’s what happened here.”
Nigro said the first call to the fire department was from a neighbor who saw the smoke and heard a fire alarm going off. When a journalist asked about residents’ knowledge of fire escapes, he said in buildings like the one that caught fire, there are no fire escapes, only interior stairways that residents should know how to locate. “And I think some of them could not escape because of the volume of smoke,” Nigro said. There were about 120 apartment units in the building, and there are now a “very large” number of people who need a place to stay. A representative with the American Red Cross said the nonprofit is registering those who need housing and will provide them with short-term housing in hotels until they can access long-term options, whether that means returning to their apartments or working with the state or New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
The building was constructed in 1972, is federally funded, and was potentially built “outside of the New York City fire code,” Nigro said. He explained that certain federal buildings can be built using different standards, but that the difference wasn’t applicable because the fire never extended to other areas of the building.
Gregory Thomson, a lawyer responding to a journalist’s Twitter message, tweeted that the building’s doors should have been self-closing, a requirement by local law. Lawmakers stated in the law: “All doors providing access to interior corridors or stairs in occupancy groups R-1 and R-2 shall be self-closing or equipped with a device that will ensure closing after having been opened by July 31, 2021.”
There is also the question of whether smoke alarms in the building were functioning properly. Dana Nicole Campbell, who lived on the building’s third floor, told The New York Times that fire alarms in the building would go off five and six times a day. “I roll my eyes,” she said. Other residents got in the habit of simply ignoring them.
The building’s owners didn’t address the smoke alarms in an interview with The City, a nonprofit newsroom, but a spokesperson told the nonprofit that doors were self-closing. The building, named Twin Parks North West, was part of a $166 million effort to regulate rent in 2020, and it is owned by three investment groups—LIHC Investment Group, Belveron Partners, and Camber Property Group—The New York Times reported. Journalists called Camber Property Group “one of the fastest-growing developers of affordable housing in the city.”
New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who took office this month, named Camber’s co-founder, Rick Gropper, to his transition team for housing. “We are devastated by the unimaginable loss of life caused by this profound tragedy,” the property owners said in a statement the Times obtained. “We are cooperating fully with the Fire Department and other city agencies as they investigate its cause, and we are doing all we can to assist our residents. Our thoughts are with the families and friends of those who lost their lives or were injured, and we are here to support them as we recover from this horrific fire.”
Adams said during the media briefing the apartment building housed a mostly Muslim community; many of the residents came from Gambia. “And we want to make sure that we’re sensitive to the cultural needs,” Adams said. He added that the medical examiner’s office is going to coordinate to make sure that “we respect the burial rights of the Muslim community as well as others.”
“So our message is clear today,” Adams said. “During a tragedy, we are going to be here for each other.” Adams promised victims that they would not be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) if they come forward to ask for help.
Sen. Chuck Schumer thanked firefighters at the news conference and assured victims that at the federal level, “we’ll do whatever we can.” “There is housing assistance. There is tax assistance, and maybe most important in this instance, immigration assistance, so families can be united,” Schumer said, “because many of these families have come from overseas and need to be here.”
“We are indeed a city in shock,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said during the news conference. “It’s impossible to go into that room, where scores of family who are in such grief, who are in pain. To see it in a mother’s eyes as I held her who lost her entire family. It’s hard to fathom what they’re going through.”
Hochul said that, when she prepares her budget this week, it will include a victim compensation fund to help them with burial costs and whatever families need. She made this promise to those families: “We will not forget you. We will not abandon you. We are here for you.”