Bronx Fire Kills 13:
Death at the Hands of a Heartless System

January 8, 2018 | Revolution Newspaper |


On the night of December 28, a fire raged through a building in the Belmont section of the Bronx, New York City. It quickly turned a century-old brick apartment building into an inferno of death. As of this writing, 13 people have died from this fire. Four of them were children. Three other people are hospitalized in critical condition.

The victims include Maria Batiz, who had lived in the building for 25 years. Her brother Fernando described her as his “caretaker.” He said, “She took me off the street. I don’t know what to think. I just saw a picture of her on Facebook and lost it.” Emmanuel Mensah, a young immigrant from Ghana, went into the building five times to pull people out of the burning building. His uncle said, “He brought four people out. When he went to bring a fifth person out the fire caught up with him.”

Ambrozia Stewart emigrated from Jamaica in the late 1980s. Four members of her family died in the blazeā€•her youngest daughter and three granddaughters. “I don’t know what to do, and I don’t know how to feel. I need somebody to tell me what to feel. Where do I go from here? Four at one time. What do I do?”

Several people passing by also acted heroically to save the lives of those trapped in the fire. 23-year-old Angelo Villanueva first gave CPR to a young girl gasping on the sidewalk. Then he tried to get in the building but couldn’t get through the billowing smoke. He yelled to people to give him a boost to a fire escape so he could pull it down. He “unhooked the ladder, and started helping people down, children first.” 26-year-old Kareem Turner, in a neighboring building saw Angelo on the fire escape. He leapt over a fence and began hoisting people over it to safety, away from the raging flames. “The fire was following us. If I had not seen them and helped them they would have perished for a fact.”

A man from Nigeria told us how quickly the fire spread. “I came home that evening and lay down. I wanted to sleep for two hours because I have to work at night. I was asleep and something... the smell woke me up. I checked everywhere and there was nothing in my room so I checked the kitchen. It was OK, so I went back to the bed and lay down again. But I could still smell the odor, so I said, ‘let me go to the hallway to see what was happening.’ I opened the door and the smoke was already coming into my apartment. I couldn’t even see the door across the hall. I couldn’t get out, so I closed the door and slipped on my pants, the ones I have on now, and tried to find the key for my window which has a lock on it. I found the key, opened the window and got out. I grabbed my cell phone and came out on the fire escape. There were other people on the fire escape waiting for the ladder from the firefighters. There was huge smoke on one side of the fire escape so I went to the other side and got down.”

“A Horrible, Tragic Accident”?

The authorities say that a three-year-old boy fiddling with stove knobs in the kitchen started the fire. They say it quickly spread throughout the five-story building because the stairwell “acted like a chimney” and worsened because tenants opened their apartment doors and fed it oxygen.

New York mayor Bill de Blasio said, “It seems like a horrible, tragic accident” and that “nothing problematic about the building ... contributed to this tragedy.” Fire commissioner Daniel A. Nigro admonished people to “close the door, close the door, close the door.” The New York Times summed up that “The disaster was fed not by structural defects or firefighting mishaps, officials said, but by an unholy mix of circumstance.”

This is bullshit. New York authorities are trying to treat this as a case they have already figured out and absolve the city of any blame. Even more contemptible—de Blasio and the others are trying to blame the people—even a three-year-old toddler—for crimes of their system that resulted in the loss of 13 lives!

2363 Prospect was built in 1916. The neighborhood around it has a large number of people from Caribbean and African countries. People who lived in this building came from Trinidad, the Dominican Republic, Nigeria, Guinea, and Jamaica. It had never been fireproofed. A city ordinance that requires all buildings with three or more units to have self-closing doors was not enforced at this building. Fire traps like the one in the Bronx exist throughout the city.  The Associated Press reported that the city “cited landlords over 7,752 times in the last year for violations of the self-closing-door requirement.”

When the fire department arrived on the scene minutes after the fire was reported they were unable to tap into the local hydrant because it was frozen shut in the near zero-degree temperature. The Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) hadn’t seen fit to maintain the valves to keep it from freezing up! Valuable time was wasted as the firefighters had to drag their hoses down the block and around the street to find a hydrant they could use.

Daniel Nigro also said the frozen hydrant “didn’t slow activity.” A spokesman for the FDNY dismissed the loss of time as merely “momentary.” But an expert in fire security and management from John Jay College said that “Time is of the essence in a fire. We’re talking about minutes here, not an hour. A frozen hydrant can really mess things up.” And a 32-year veteran of the FDNY described arriving on the scene and finding a frozen hydrant, a building in flames, and three victims already lying in the entrance hall. He helped pull the people out of the hall and called ambulances for them, but he said, “Now we have multiple victims and we don’t have water.”

Prospect Avenue and the streets around it are not one of the more devastated and impoverished sections of the Bronx. The street is tidy and there are several relatively new buildings on Prospect. Neighbors told reporters that people on that street look out for each other, and one woman said moving there changed the notions she had of what the Bronx is like.

2363 Prospect had, according to the Times, six open violations of the NYC fire code. It was described by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development as having a “relatively low history of repair violations.” Think of this. A building that in a few minutes, on a night of record cold, turns into an inescapable inferno that kills a dozen people, is regarded as being not particularly dangerous by city officials! What does this say of the thousands of other buildings throughout the city? What does it tell you about what these authorities think about the millions of immigrants, of Black and Brown people who fill endless blocks with buildings in worse shape than this one?

A man who grew up in the neighborhood told us of what he called a “Never ending story around here. The landlords get the violations in the mail, and nine times out of ten, the inspectors know the landlords, know the supers, and what happens is they (the landlords) have the super tell the inspector we’re working on it, and the inspectors have such a huge case load that they don’t bother to check. And then another inspector finds the same violation because they have to be checked every so often, and it’s never ending.”

He also said that the building at 2363 had been worked on to cram “as many apartments as they could in that building, on each floor to save space. This is what they do in the Bronx. They take a structure, and they try to fit as many people as they can in it. The apartments are very small. This is a tragedy. You didn’t see smoke detectors on every floor in that building.”

The deaths there were the result of the criminal workings of a system that has contempt for immigrants and other oppressed people. It drives them from their homelands. It packs them into ancient and un-maintained buildings in its inner cities. City authorities routinely ignore violations of their own building, safety, and fire codes supposedly intended to provide some defense against fires and other health and life hazards. Large and small capitalist landlords profit by cutting corners on building maintenance, or ignoring it altogether.

Now 13 people from Prospect Avenue are dead. This is a story that must end.


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