Funerals have just begun for those who died in the fatal December 28, 2017, blaze in a Bronx apartment building, and an extensive investigation into the incident is in its initial phase, but victims have already raised allegations against varying New York City departments. Victims and family members of the deceased are pursuing legal action for what they say were failures in preventing and fighting the deadly structure fire.
Deadly New York Structure Fire Began After 3-Year-Old Played with Stove
It was just three days after Christmas when the fire started at 2363 Prospect Avenue in the Bronx. Inside a first-floor apartment, a 3-year-old boy played in the kitchen with his mother in another room. His sudden screams caught her attention, and she found the boy had been playing with the burners on the stove, which had caused a fire to start. The mother grabbed both her son and a two-year-old child that was also inside the apartment and fled; behind her, the door to the apartment remained open.
The fire raced through the five-story apartment building, quickly burning the 1916 structure and sending residents scrambling to escape through the hallways and out the fire escapes.
Firefighters received the first call regarding the Bronx fire at 6:51 p.m. and were on scene three minutes later, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio. The fire hydrant nearest to the burning building, however, was frozen solid in the frigid temperatures, sending responders in search of another hydrant nearby.
Fire Spread Quickly Through the Stairwell, Trapping Some Residents
Many residents attempted to get out of the building through the stairwell, but it proved to be a dangerous route.
Video footage of the burned out hallway and stairwell of 2363 Prospect Ave in the Bronx, where a 5th alarm fire killed 12 people. #FDNY Fire Marshals determined the cause of the fire to be a young child playing with the burner on a stove pic.twitter.com/MwcuxX6j8k— FDNY (@FDNY) December 29, 2017
"Fire travels up," Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said in a press conference. "The stairway acted like a chimney. It took the fire so quickly up the stairs that people had very little time to react."
More than 160 firefighters ultimately responded to the building fire and fought until 10:00 p.m. to get the blaze under control, but by then, 12 people from various floors of the building died. Another resident died a week later.
Some residents escaped carrying as many of their children as they could while having to leave the rest of their family behind.
Lawsuits in the Works Against Various NY Departments for Their Role in Bronx Fire
Eleven claimants have already filed a notice to file a lawsuit against the city and its various departments for what they say were negligent acts that contributed to the fatal fire. Each claimant seeks around $10 million.
Administration for Child Services Department and the City
The notice to file a lawsuit cites the Administration for Child Services Department for knowing about issues with the mother of the 3-year-old who started the fire and not taking appropriate action. Allegations include that the boy's mother was "known to authorities and to the [city] Administration for Child Services Department for not watching and taking care of her child."
Elsewhere in the court documents, the claimants allege that "had said Administration for Child Services Department and/or other City agencies followed up on complaints and taken the child away from the mother, as they should have, said fire would not have occurred."
2363 Prospect Avenue had received notice of a violation in August of 2017 for having a carbon monoxide detector that did not work properly and a defective smoke detector in one unit, according to records from the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
The notice to file a lawsuit addresses multiple violations against the owners of the apartment building but alleges the city failed to ensure that action was taken.
Fire Department of New York
The claimants allege that the frozen hydrant awaiting firefighters was another element that added to the impact of the fire, saying that it took "precious time" to locate another working hydrant.
The documents allege that the city allowed "water to build up in the fire hydrants thereby allowing to the line to freeze" and "allowing cracks in the fire hydrant nearest the place of the fire which allowed cold air in and caused the fire hydrant lines to freeze."
Officials Urge People Not to Rush Conclusions About Prospect Ave. Apartment Fire
An investigation into the Bronx fire will take many months, but New York City officials are hesitant to jump to conclusions and ask others to be cautious about laying blame.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement on Twitter that the fire, "Appears to have been accidental," adding "as far as we can see, nothing was problematic about the fire safety in the building."
Fire Commissioner Nigro echoed Mayor de Blasio's statement saying that no structural issues contributed to the fire, and a spokesperson for the New York City Housing Preservation and Development Department said that the building had a "relatively low history of repair violations."
Victims of New York Building Fire Remembered and Mourned
Two weeks have passed since the Bronx fire, and funeral services have begun for victims.
A family of four and their 19-year-old niece were mourned at the R.G. Oritz Funeral Home in Washington Heights on January 8, 2018. Thirty-seven-year-old Karen Stewart-Francis hid from the blaze in the bathroom of her apartment with two daughters, 2-year-old Kylie Francis and 7-year-old Kelesha Francis, and her 19-year-old niece, Shawntay Young. The four died from smoke inhalation.
Stewart-Francis' husband, 27-year-old Holt Francis, was rescued from the blaze and remained on life support for a week before succumbing to his injuries.
Hundreds of people came to the funeral home to honor the memory of the family and to mourn the lives cut short. For some, the grief was too much to bear.
VIDEO: Five family members killed in a Bronx apartment building fire will be buried in Jamaica says the family. Thirteen people in total were killed in the December 28th fire pic.twitter.com/28i3xt8xDT— azcentral (@azcentral) January 9, 2018
Shevan Stewart, Karen Stewart-Francis' sister, was in the funeral home's vestibule when she fainted, before waking up shouting, "The fire, the fire, fire!" According to her brother, Rudolph, her cries were flashbacks from the tragedy.
"She tried to save them," he said. "She's taking it very hard."
Solider Who Saved Four in Building to Be Honored Posthumously
Twenty-six-year-old Private Emmanuel Mensah had come back to New York for Christmas on a break from National Guard basic training, and would otherwise not have been in the building for the fire. For four residents, however, it's lucky he was.
Mensah, who is a native of Ghana and serves in the U.S. Army, escaped the fire as it broke out, but ran back into the burning building to save the lives of four other residents, some family members. He died while attempting further rescues.
New York Sen. Charles Schumer was quick to advocate for Mensah to be honored for his valiant efforts in the Bronx fire, saying in a letter to the Army that, "[Mensah] was many things: a soldier, an immigrant, a first-generation American, a New Yorker—but above all else he was a hero." The Army has since decided to posthumously award Mensah a Medal of Valor and a Soldier’s Award.