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Bronx Apartment Fire Kills At Least 12; Young Boy Played With Stove, FDNY Says

On one of the coldest nights this winter in New York City, a fire tore through an apartment building in the city's Bronx borough. At least 12 people were killed, four people were critically injured and two others sustained non-life-threatening injuries, city officials say.

The dead include five children, New York City Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said in an update from the scene late Friday morning.

"This fire started in the kitchen on the first floor," Nigro said. "It started from a young boy, 3 1/2 years old, playing with the burners on the stove."

The boy's mother wasn't alerted to the fire until her son began screaming, Nigro said. She then fled the apartment with her children — ages 2 and 3 — and left her door open — a detail that Nigro said was crucial to the fire spreading so quickly.

"The stairway acted like a chimney," Nigro said. "It took the fire so quickly upstairs that people had very little time to react; they couldn't get back down the stairs."

The fire commissioner said that despite crews arriving in a little over three minutes after an alarm sounded, the blaze had already moved quickly through the building.

Some of those who tried to go down the stairs died, Nigro said. Some of the people who survived did so by using the building's fire escapes, he said.

Saying that the department is grieving along with people who lost everything in the fire, Nigro added that the tragedy highlights two lessons for the public to remember: Don't leave children unattended and close the door when trying to escape a fire.

"It seems like a horrible tragic accident," Mayor Bill de Blasio tells member station WNYC.

NPR's Joel Rose reports for our Newscast unit:

"The fire broke out in the first floor of the building just before 7 p.m. and quickly spread through the building.

"Hours later, Mayor Bill de Blasio stood in the street near the scene of the fire to deliver the grim news, 'This is the worst fire tragedy we've seen in this city in at least a quarter century. Based on info we have now, this will rank as one of the worst losses to life in a fire in many many years.' "

Those escaping the fire rushed out into 15-degree temperatures. Thierno Diallo ran out of his apartment wearing his bathrobe, jacket and sandals, according to The Associated Press.

"Diallo, 59, a security guard originally from Conakry, Guinea, who lives in a ground floor apartment said he was home asleep when he heard banging on the door. It took him a moment to realize what was happening.

"Only when I heard people screaming, 'There's a fire in the building!' " he said. "I heard somebody, 'Oh! Fire! Fire! Fire!' "

About 170 firefighters worked through bone-chilling cold to rescue people from the building. The water from their hoses froze on the streets.

The New York Times reports:

"Displaced residents walked around draped in American Red Cross blankets. Three young girls were whisked into a neighboring building after climbing down a fire escape with no shoes or coats.

"Officials said they were opening up the nearby Grace H. Dodge vocational high school as a reception center for people who needed housing and other services. People looking for relatives who lived in the building were also told to go to the school, or to call 311."

This fire is the deadliest since 1990 when 87 people were killed in a fire at the Happy Land social club.

In 2007, another fire in a Bronx apartment building killed 10 people — nine of them children. The cause of that fire was attributed to an overheated cord from a space heater.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Doreen McCallister