NEW YORK • Investigators in New York City were searching for the cause of a blaze that ripped through an apartment building in the Bronx and killed 12 people, including four children, in the city's deadliest fire in at least a quarter of a century.
The fire broke out just before 7pm on Thursday (8am Friday, Singapore time) on the first floor of a brick building and quickly spread upstairs, city fire commissioner Daniel Nigro told a news conference with Mayor Bill de Blasio.
"We are here at the scene of an unspeakable tragedy. In the middle of the holiday season is a time when families are together. Tonight, here in the Bronx, there are families that have been torn apart," Mr de Blasio said.
Children aged one, two and seven and an unidentified boy died in the fire along with four men and four women, local media reported.
Four people were in hospital in critical condition fighting for their lives, the mayor said. The authorities said firefighters rescued 12 people from the building.
"People died on various floors of the apartment, ranging in age from one to over 50," Mr Nigro told reporters. "In a department that is surely no stranger to tragedy, we are shocked by the lives lost."
Two of the dead were found in a bathtub, according to cable news station NY1. "People were screaming, and that is how we knew there was trouble," eyewitness Kimberly Wilkins told WCBS-TV, an affiliate of CBS News.
The blaze erupted in the Belmont section of the Bronx, a primarily residential, close-knit neighbourhood known as the "Little Italy" of the borough, adjacent to the Bronx Zoo and Fordham University.
New York is going through a bitter cold snap with high winds, which, according to one media account, stoked flames inside the building as residents flung open doors and windows.
Wherever fire hoses sprayed, the ground was covered with sheets of ice, according to an NY1 reporter.
One witness, Mr Rafael Gonzalez, who lives across the street from the building, told WCBS-TV that he saw some youth on a fire escape of the burning building as the fire raged.
"What woke me up was the smoke, because I thought it was my building," he said.
More than 160 firefighters responded to the blaze, the New York City Fire Department said.
Pictures posted on Twitter by the department showed two fire trucks with aerial ladders extended to the upper floors of a brick building bathed in floodlights, and firefighters on the fire escape outside what appeared to be a second-or third-floor unit.
The number of civilian fire fatalities in New York City last year dropped to 48, the fewest in the 100 years since record-keeping began.