Activists Say Greed, Neglect Are to Blame for Bronx Fire That Killed 17 People

On Sunday, 17 people died in a massive fire that erupted in an apartment block in Bronx. The fire was blamed on a malfunctioning space heater by the city. Housing advocates claim the real problem is the lack affordable and safe housing. They cite the inability to heat the building during subzero temperatures and poor fire safety systems. Tenants and activists note one of the building’s co-owners is a member of Mayor Eric Adams’s transition team, and are demanding an extension to the eviction moratorium set to expire on January 15. “All of them are really asking for accountability, not just from the state and city agencies but first and foremost from their landlord and the building owners,” says reporter Claudia Irizarry Aponte, who covers the Bronx for the nonprofit newsroom The City.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Here in New York at a vigil Tuesday night, people mourned the 17 victims of a high-rise apartment building in the Bronx, the city’s deadliest fire in decades.

VIGILERS: [singing]

AMY GOODMAN: Officials have now released the names of the 17 people who died in Sunday’s deadly fire in the 19-story apartment building in the Bronx. They range in age between 2 and 50 years. Some were from the same families. All of them died as a result of smoke inhalation. Many of them were West Africa-born immigrants who were part of the local Muslim population. The Gambian Youth Organization and a nearby mosque offer support to the families of the deceased and survivors.

Investigators say Sunday’s fire began when an electric space heater malfunctioned and that victims suffered from severe smoke inhalation after a pair of open doors allowed smoke to spread throughout the building. The building served as a chimney. City records show tenants of the Twin Parks tower had complained about a lack of heat in the building and doors that didn’t close automatically, as required by law. Many people were trapped on the upper floors of the building, which did not have sprinklers or fire escapes. Self-closing doors are supposed to have prevented toxic smoke and flames spreading.

Eric Adams, the new mayor of New York City, spoke Monday outside the Bronx Building.

MAYOR ERIC ADAMS: Close the door, as Commissioner Nigro has said several times. Close the door. As a child, I was able to see the commercials over and again. We’re going to double down on that message. My conversation with the chancellor this morning, we’re going to send out communications to all of our schools and state that we want our children to receive the same level of reinforcement. Muscle memory is everything. We can save lives if we can do that. If we can send the right message, such as closing the door, this painful moment can become a purposeful one.

AMY GOODMAN: Housing activists believe that cities agencies like Housing Preservation and Development have the responsibility of saving lives. HPDThese are the people responsible for enforcing building safety codes. Democracy Now! We spoke with the Director of CASA — that’s Community Action for Safe Apartments — Pablo Estupiñan, on Tuesday.

PABLO ESTUPIÑAN: As an organizer in the Southwest Bronx for the last eight years and working with thousands of tenants over countless buildings who have all experienced these issues, as well not having heat or getting repairs, being harassed, living without gas, I have to say that I’m really shocked and astonished that the city leadership would blame tenants, that they would say that fire doors — closing the doors is enough and that people shouldn’t have had space heaters. This kind of response ignores any responsibility or accountability for city agencies such as HPD Or the Department of Buildings. DOB, and their inability to enforce code.

You know that tenants will live in buildings with poor heat and conditions for months or even years, without any action being taken by the city. The only time that we — the times that we are successful in getting landlords to change the conditions in their buildings often comes through legal action, through tenants organizing together and filing joint group Housing Part cases in housing court to get repairs. And even after a judge’s order, we have seen buildings where HPD You will still be unable to come in to make repairs or hold your landlord accountable.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s CASA Director Pablo Estupiñan. The building where Sunday’s fire took place is owned by an investment group whose co-founder, Rick Gropper, served on Mayor Eric Adams’ transition team as a housing adviser.

For more, we’re joined by reporter Claudia Irizarry Aponte, who covers the Bronx for the New York-based outlet The City and has been following closely the story, her most recent articles headlined “Self-Closing Door Law Failed to Save Bronx Fire Victims” and “Deadly Bronx Blaze Prompts Scrutiny of Open Door That Spread Smoke.”

We welcome you to Democracy Now! And by the way, congratulations on the announcement that you’ve just received the Ida B. Wells Award honoring exceptional coverage of communities of color from the Newswomen’s Club of New York. This is a direct result of your outstanding reporting on the issue. We hear the governor and the mayor. We hear them talking about the space heater — well, why was it so cold that space heaters were needed? — and tenants leaving open open doors. They’re supposed to be automatically closing, is that not right, Claudia? Talk about what you discovered.

CLAUDIA IRIZARRY APONTE: That’s right, Amy and Juan. Good morning, and thanks for having me.

There are two possible factors that could have contributed to the flames. Of course there’s the issue of the malfunctioning space heater and the fact that the door of the apartment where the fire originated, the third- and second-floor duplex apartment, did not close properly, allowing for the smoke to spread more quickly.

However, this raises the question of why the tenants used a space heater and why the building wasn’t warm enough. Certainly, from the tenants that I have spoken with — I’ve been on the site every day since Sunday — that is the top question on these tenants’ minds. You know, I have heard from tenants who say that — I’ve heard from multiple tenants who say that they also use space heaters because they did not find that their apartments were warm enough, that they claim that their windows were not insulated, and on very cold days they would actually get frost on the interior part of their windows.

This building is not considered to be an old building according to New York City infrastructure standards. It’s about 50 years old. It was constructed in 1970s as a model for affordable housing in the area. The building received federal and state funding to subsidize housing. But certainly, in a lot of these buildings, you know, if tenants are not able to control the temperature in their own apartments, they don’t have thermostats, that is all up to the building management. Many of these tenants are elderly, children, or multigenerational families. They had to resort to ovens to keep warm. They had to resort using space heaters in order to stay warm. Unfortunately, these tools can fail, and you end up with fires like the one that we saw on Sunday. So, a lot of the tenants that I have spoken to — in fact, all of them — are really asking for accountability, not just from the state and city agencies but first and foremost from their landlord and the building owners.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Claudia, this whole issue of — obviously, this building did not have fire escapes or sprinklers, because, supposedly, these more modern — relatively, as you say, modern — buildings are supposed to be, to some extent, fireproof and have at least double staircases for exiting in case fires occur. What’s your sense, because most of the people died not — of smoke inhalation? Could you please talk about the causes of these deaths?

CLAUDIA IRIZARRY APONTE: According to Daniel Nigro, Fire Commissioner, smoke inhalation was the cause of most deaths. We don’t know much detail about where exactly the victims were found. All we do know is that in terms of the people who are in fact still injured and, to use Commissioner Nigro’s own words, fighting for their lives in city hospitals, did suffer injuries from smoke inhalation, from the people who have died so far. The majority of those who died from smoke inhalation were found in apartment hallways and stairwells. You can imagine that they were trying to escape the smoke, but it was too dense. I have heard that, as well, from tenants who managed to escape or were rescued by firefighters, that the smoke became too dense, and they couldn’t see. I spoke with an elderly man who had actually fallen asleep from the smoke. He was fine when we spoke on Sunday at the tenant gathering. He tried to escape but it caused an asthma attack. He fell unconscious. He was fine and in good spirits when I spoke with him on Sunday night.

The building does, however, not have the fire escapes that you typically see on brownstones or five-story buildings across New York. These exits run on the outside. Fire officials confirmed that tenants can escape from the building’s interior stairwells if necessary. The problem is that the apartment’s door did not close properly as required under law. This allowed the smoke to spread quickly, creating, as Amy stated, a chimney effect that extended all the way to the 19th floor. Unfortunately, this was the cause of a lot more injury and deaths than we saw with this fire.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What can you tell us about Rick Gropper, the owner? How many buildings do he and his investment group own in the city? Are there any public statements he has made?

CLAUDIA IRIZARRY APONTE: So, Camber Property Group, which is one of the co-owners of this building — and to keep in mind, there’s a consortium of property managers and affordable housing providers that took ownership of this building about two years ago. This building also receives funding from the state Mitchell Lama housing program. This program subsidizes affordable apartments as well as Section 8 housing which is, of course the federal housing program. Camber Property Group is a provider of affordable housing in the city. They are the owners or managers of well over 100 buildings in New York. They also have contracts with the public-private ownership and management program. NYCHANew York City’s public housing is called the RAD program. Through this program, they operate several public housing units in the Bronx as well as across the city.

Camber Property Group founder Rick Gropper. He is also, as you mentioned, a part of Mayor Eric Adams’ transitional team, you know, advising him on housing. This reporter is not sure if he was able to provide advice to the mayor regarding housing. Also, is he still in contact with him? They are clearly in contact right now, responding directly to the fire.

But it really does beg the question, especially when you hear of the mayor, in his public response, speaking over and over again — you know, I’ve heard a ton of tenants say that they’ve been actually quite disappointed with the mayor’s messaging, you know, speaking, rightfully so, about the importance of closing the door behind you and to be careful with the use of space heaters, but, of course, many tenants feel, “Well, we wouldn’t be using the space heaters if the building was warm enough. And the door didn’t close properly, as required by law. Well, the city agencies and the landlord should have made sure that the doors close properly.” So, certainly, you know, a lot of frustration and anger from a lot of tenants, and certainly even some housing advocates and, frankly, New Yorkers, who have been responding to and reading about this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Claudia, in addition, some of the survivors were talking about how they didn’t initially try to get out, because so many times there were false alarms. These alarms were a routine for them. And that also takes us to Philadelphia, where 12 people died last Wednesday, including nine children, in Philadelphia’s deadliest fire in over a century, the blaze killing three adult sisters, nine of their children, occurring in a row house owned by Philadelphia Housing Authority. Authorities now say 14 people were inside the building when the fire began, that none of the building’s four smoke detectors went off when it started, investigators believing the fire began when a 5-year-old accidentally lit a Christmas tree on fire. So, this issue and the number of people now who lose their homes — what happens to them? — especially as you have this latest development yesterday, protesters blocking the steps of the New York state Capitol in Albany, demanding Governor Kathy Hochul extend the eviction moratorium, which expires, ironically, on Friday. That’s January 15th. January 15th is Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. This is Tenants & Neighbors Executive Director Genesis Aquino.

GENESIS AQUINO: Over the years, I learned that greedy landlords will do whatever it takes to make a profit. They say tenants are disposable, so that’s why they’re willing to evict whenever they want, without cause. They can get away with murder, which is the main reason they do this. That’s what we saw this weekend in the Bronx with the fire, all the families that died due to negligence. The landlord couldn’t just evict them, so he killed them. We are here today, putting our bodies on line in this weather because we know that we are not disposable.

AMY GOODMAN: The eviction moratorium expires on January 15th. What happens to these people and the significance of this?

CLAUDIA IRIZARRY APONTE: Right. That’s absolutely right. Certainly, housing issues and tenants’ rights are front of mind for New Yorkers right now with both of these issues just happening at the same time. Well, as you said, there were activists yesterday at this Albany state Capitol, you know, sitting in and fighting for the “good cause eviction” bill, which would grant relief to some tenants when the eviction moratorium expires on the 15th.

The tenants of this Bronx building know that they have a long and difficult road ahead. Fires in New York City are not uncommon, particularly in Bronx neighborhoods. I have also covered other residential fires. It can take tenants up to a whole year to find permanent housing, especially for tenants like the Twin Parks building who have Section 8 vouchers. They will need placement in other Section 8 properties which, as we all know, are very rare.

As far as what’s next in the short term for these tenants, their building owner, their landlord, is actually paying them to stay in hotels for the next two weeks. Many city agencies, housing advocates, and even some lawyers, some public defenses, are helping them to not only build a case against their landlord but also help them find housing and be placed in Section 8 housing or other affordable housing. After the two-week period in which they stayed in the hotel, the tenants who don’t have an apartment to rent, either by themselves or with their families have been offered housing in city shelters. This has been very troubling for many of my tenants. They’re very scared of going to a homeless shelter with COVID New York City has seen an increase in cases. So, again, they’re in for a very long, painful road ahead of them, for their part. Representative Ritchie Torres, a Democrat, stated that he will do everything possible to ensure that residents with Section 8 vouchers are placed in Section 8 housing that is similar to theirs as soon as possible. He also reiterated the same promises made by other city legislators.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank everyone for being there. A $3 billion class-action lawsuit has been filed against Bronx tower owner for their involvement in the 17 deaths caused by the fire. Claudia Irizarry Aponte, I am grateful for your presence as a reporter covering Bronx, New York-based outlet. The City. We’ll link to your stories.

Next, we’ll be discussing the fight to stop a gas-fired power station in Ironbound, New Jersey. Stay with us.