A 3-year-old boy playing with the burners on a stove caused the deadliest fire the city has seen in decades, Mayor Bill de Blasio and FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said Friday.
The boy was in an apartment on the first floor of the five-story building on Prospect Avenue, near East 187th Street, in Belmont, when the fire started at about 6:50 p.m. The boy's mother rushed him and her other child out of the apartment, but left the door open, Nigro said.
The fire quickly spread to the other floors, killing 12 people, including four children, making it the deadliest NYC fire in 27 years. In 1990, an arson-fueled blaze at Happy Land Social Club in nearby East Tremont led to 87 deaths.
"It seems like a horrible, tragic accident -- a fire that spread very, very quickly and took so many lives," de Blasio said Friday during his regularly scheduled WNYC radio appearance.
“The stairway acted like a chimney,” Nigro said at a news conference later Friday. “It took the fire so quickly upstairs that people had very little time to react.”
Some people tried to get down the stairs, but many didn’t make it. As many as 20 people made it onto the fire escapes, and were helped down by firefighters, according to Nigro.
The victims include Karen Francis, 37, her daughters Charmela, 7, and Kylie, 2, and her niece, Shawntay Young, 19; Maria Batiz, 58, and her 7-month-old granddaughter, Amora; Army private Emmanuel Mensah, 28; Gabriel Yaw Sarkookie, 48; Justice Opoku, 54; Solomon Donkor, 49; Hannah Donkor, 17; and William Donkor, who is believed to be around 13 years old, police said.
Four more people were fighting for their lives at the hospital, the mayor said.
Elaine Williams, one of Karen Francis' sisters and Young’s mother, lives on the first floor of the building, but wasn't home when the fire started.
"I feel so empty. I feel so lost," Williams said Friday morning outside the building. Her brother-in-law was also badly burned.
According to property records, the building and the adjacent one are owned by D & A Equities, Inc. The two buildings have a combined 37 open violations, including one in August for a broken smoke detector on the first floor, according to city records.
"We are shocked and saddened at the loss of life and injuries which occurred. Our prayers and thoughts are with the families affected. The landlord is communicating with the City of New York and associated agencies,” D & A Equities said in a statement.
None of the open violations in the building where the fire happened were issued by the Department of Buildings, a DOB spokesperson said. De Blasio added that nothing problematic about the building contributed to the fire.
The tragedy is a reminder that all parents have to grapple with how to keep their children away from fire, the mayor said.
"We all know, this is a very sad reality that young kids get attracted to fire, and play with it thinking it's innocent when it's not ... it's really tough to keep an eye on your children at every single second of every day."
With Mark Morales and Chau Lam