NEW YORK (REUTERS) - New York authorities said on Monday (Jan 10) the city was investigating a possible "maintenance issue" with self-closing doors that failed to function properly when a devastating fire erupted in a Bronx apartment building a day earlier, killing 17 people, including eight children.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams, just over a week into the job, said at a briefing that the city's medical examiner determined the fire had claimed two fewer lives than the 19 announced on Sunday.
Nearly three dozen survivors were hospitalised with severe injuries.
The blaze broke out on Sunday morning in the 19-floor Twin Parks North West building, which provided affordable housing units for low-income New Yorkers. Many of the residents were from the large Gambian immigrant community that lived in the neighbourhood.
"This is a global tragedy as the Bronx and New York City is representative of the ethnicities and cultures across the globe," Mr Adams said during a briefing in front of the building. "This is an evolving crisis. An unspeakable tragedy."
Mr Adams said he spoke with US President Joe Biden, who pledged that the White House would provide any assistance needed to address the aftermath of the fire.
The catastrophe is likely to stir questions on safety standards in low-income city housing.
It was the second major fire in a residential complex in the United States in a week after 12 people, including eight children, were killed early last Wednesday when flames swept through a public housing apartment building in Philadelphia.
Crew dressed in white protective suits were on the scene of the Bronx fire cleaning glass and debris off sidewalks on Monday as firefighters and inspectors continued to examine the building's interior and exterior.
The street was cordoned off where a small group of people gathered, some bringing clothing and other donations for survivors.
Fire marshals determined through physical evidence and accounts from residents that the fire started from a portable electric heater in a bedroom of an apartment that spanned the second and third floors of the building.
The building's furnace was functioning, and the portable device that caught fire was being used to supplement central heating, they said.
Earlier on Monday, on the ABC News programme Good Morning America, Mr Adams said smoke spread swiftly to other parts of the building due to a faulty self-closing apartment door being left open, rather than shutting automatically as designed in order to help contain fires.
"There may have been a maintenance issue with this door, and that is going to be part of the ongoing investigation," Mr Adams said. "This is all going to come out during the investigation."
Investigators were also looking into the possibility that a door to the 15th floor stairway was not functioning as it should, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said, adding that residents would have been safer if they stayed in their apartments rather than exiting down stairways.
At least two residents who spoke to Reuters said fire alarms went off in the building "periodically" or routinely and were not always heeded.
One survivor, Mr John Maroney, 59, recounted he was awakened by firemen as his 13th-floor apartment filled with smoke, and was given oxygen by emergency personnel after being ushered out of his unit.
"And then I learnt about the fatalities, which is, you know, I'm still going through that. I'm still dealing with that," he said standing at the door of the hotel room where he was staying afterwards.
His wife, who was at work at the time of the fire, has since returned to their unit and found no structural damage to their home. "I'm lucky. I'm still here and my wife is still here with me," Mr Maroney said.
Fire Commissioner Nigro said officials do not yet have a tally of how many victims were found in apartments, stairwells and hallways.
He added that stairwells were "very dangerous" during the emergency because of smoke filling the area.
Addressing the revised death toll, Mr Nigro said patients had been taken to seven different hospitals in the city, which led to "a bit of a double count".
Some 60 people were injured in the blaze, 32 of them hospitalised with life-threatening injuries, officials said on Sunday.
More than 200 firefighters helped put out the blaze.
"Many of them, their oxygen tanks were on empty," Mr Adams said on Monday. "But instead of turning back and exiting the building, they pushed through, through the smoke."
The building is owned by a joint venture, Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC, made up of three firms - LIHC Investment Group, Belveron Partners and Camber Property Group.
The building was constructed in 1972 as part of a state programme to provide affordable housing, a spokesman for the joint venture said. All 120 units are covered by subsidy programmes, she said.
She said the building was equipped with self-closing doors, and that owners are "cooperating fully" with fire officials and other agencies investigating the blaze.