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FDNY: Constant use of multiple space heaters sparked fire that killed 17

All the deaths were due to smoke inhalation, a spokeswoman for the city’s medical examiner said


FDNY firefighters helped people get out of the apartment building.

Photo/Theodore Parisienne/Tribune News Service

Haley Brown and Thomas Tracy
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — The Bronx apartment where a fire erupted that killed 17 people had several space heaters running at the time of the fire — and all of them, including the one that sparked the fatal blaze, had been left on for days, FDNY sources said Tuesday.

Firefighters made the discovery as they sifted through the scorched rubble of the second-floor in the duplex apartment where the Sunday morning fire started.

The blaze sent thick plumes of choking smoke throughout the Twin Parks North West building on E. 181st St. near Tiebout Ave. in Fordham Heights.

The fire was the city’s deadliest since the 1990 blaze at the Bronx’s Happy Land Social Club.

In Sunday’s blaze, more than 30 people were rushed to area hospitals with life-threatening injuries. By that afternoon, 17 had died, including eight children. All of them died from smoke inhalation, a spokeswoman for the city’s medical examiner said.

The FDNY determined space heaters were the cause of 11 fires in 2020 the department’s Bureau of Fire Investigation probed the cause of. Space heaters have already sparked two fires investigated by the bureau this year, including Sunday’s deadly blaze, an FDNY official said Tuesday. The Bureau of Fire Investigation probes the city’s fires that are complex, suspicious or fatal.

Now fire marshals are trying to determine what caused the space heater to erupt into flames Sunday and why the apartment’s self-closing door that should have kept the smoke from spreading throughout the building malfunctioned and remained open.

Investigators said the heat in the building appeared to be working. New boilers were installed in 2015, and they all passed an inspection last year, according to city Buildings Department records.

On Nov. 26, the day after Thanksgiving, the city’s Housing Preservation and Development Department received an anonymous tip that the entire building was without heat or hot water, but the situation was quickly corrected and the complaint was closed, according to the agency.

At least four building tenants told the Daily News on Tuesday that they did not have any problems with the heat and wondered why the resident in the fire apartment had so many space heaters. Two residents say they get so much heat they sometimes have to open their windows.

“My apartment was warm,” said Joyce Anderson, 75, who’s lived on the building’s 13th floor since 1972. “I had the windows open a little bit like [an inch] in the home because it was very warm.”

Portable space heaters are involved in about 1,700 fires nationwide a year, resulting in about 80 deaths and 160 injuries annually, and $62 million in damage, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

In 2019, a portable space heater plugged into a power strip sparked a fire in Flatbush, Brooklyn. A man in his 60s died after he jumped from the building to escape the flames. Seven other people, including a cop who raced to the scene, were also injured.

John Jay College of Criminal Justice Associate Prof. Glenn Corbett said if the heaters were continually running they had to be older or cheaper models. Newer space heaters come with automatic shutoff switches if the unit gets too hot.

“If it didn’t have an automatic shutoff it was probably an old unit that the tenant got second- or third-hand or got it from somebody else,” Corbett said. “People want to stay warm, and if the building is not providing adequate heat they’re going to find ways to get heat in that apartment.”

The FDNY is continually putting out public service announcements on the proper use of portable space heaters, which should be kept at least 3 feet from any bedding or furniture and must be plugged directly into a wall socket and not an extension cord.

Besides the FDNY, Corbett said building management should have put up posters instructing tenants on the proper way to use space heaters, especially if they knew residents were using them.

“Building management should be saying, ‘Hey, folks, if you’re buying space heaters you should get the modern ones and learn how to use them properly,’” Corbett said. “That’s what they should have been doing.”


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