Survivor of deadly US fire: We were just trying to breathe

A broken window is seen at an apartment building after a deadly fire in the Bronx, in New York, on Jan 9, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
Evacuated residents sit inside a Red Cross Resource Centre following an apartment building fire in the Bronx borough of New York. PHOTO: REUTERS
Residents of the Twin Parks North West tower in the Bronx were evacuated after a fire on Jan 9, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS
People evacuated with their pets at a Red Cross Resource Centre following an apartment building fire in the Bronx borough of New York. PHOTO: REUTERS
Firefighters arrived to a chaotic scene as smoke poured out of many different apartment windows. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - It started as a lazy Sunday (Jan 9) morning, cold and gray outside.

Residents at the Twin Parks North West tower in the Bronx awoke to children and chores - and then the morning twisted in an instant into a blackening nightmare.

Mr Wesley Patterson, 28, a resident for more than 20 years, shuffled into his bathroom to wash up at around 11am when his girlfriend knocked on the door.

She said she had just looked out the window and seen flames coming out of the apartment next door.

Thick black smoke began to flood their apartment. Within seconds, Mr Patterson could barely see his girlfriend or her brother - and they were just on the other side of the room.

"We were just trying to breathe," he said. He rushed them to a back window and the promise of fresh air and some relief.

That window was very hot to the touch, burning his hands, but he forced it open. The move backfired: Smoke began flooding into the apartment. He slammed the window back down.

Frantic scenes like this were playing out in apartments throughout the 19-storey building, as parents and children sought escape from homes that were suddenly black and airless. 

The fire itself started after a space heater malfunction in an apartment that spanned the second and third floors of the building.

Mr Tony Johnson, 54, an Army veteran, scrambled for his old gas mask but could not find it.

Mr Mamadou Wague, 47, who lived on the third floor with nine other family members, said: "One of the kids said, 'oh, Daddy! Daddy! There's a fire!'

"I get up and there's smoke in the kids' rooms."

He went door to door, pounding, rushing his family to the front room to escape. He was missing one child - eight-year-old daughter Nafisha. He rushed to her room and found her screaming in a bed that was on fire.

"I just grabbed her and ran," he said.

In the hallway, thick smoke made a blur of passing neighbours.

"It was dark," said Mr Wague's son, Hame Wague, 16. "We were all coughing."

It would not be until later that Mr Mamadou Wague realised he had suffered burns to his lips and nose.

"I didn't think about anything except getting her out," he said.

A firefighter carries a child out of a fire in a high-rise building in the Tremont section of the Bronx on Jan 9, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Ms Dana Nicole Campbell, 47, a groundskeeper, was working at a nearby park when one of her four teenage children called.

Smoke was coming into their apartment on the third floor, they told her. Ms Campbell told them to put damp towels at the doors and raced to the building.

She saw her children, one by one, leap safely out of their third-floor window onto a pile of garbage bags and a mattress.

Deep relief washed over her.

"You can be here tomorrow with broken legs," she said. "You can't be here tomorrow with smoke inhalation."

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In Mr Patterson's smoke-filled apartment, he braved opening the hot window again when he saw the first firefighters arrive.

"Please help me! Please come get us!" he shouted, but the firefighters were racing to the burning units next door.

Minutes later, rescuers reached Mr Patterson's window and pulled him and his companions to safety outside.

Smoke-filled chaos and fallen bodies

The firefighters had arrived to a chaotic scene. Smoke poured out of a second-story window and the one directly above - but also from different windows many stories higher and on the other side, as if various fires had started at the same time.

A fire alarm had sounded, but that happened regularly, and it always turned out to be a false alarm, so most residents ignored it as usual.

Ms Dilenny Rodriguez, 38, had been doing her chores in her 12th-floor apartment where she lived with her 10-year-old son and toddler daughter when she smelled smoke.

She called a neighbour as she looked outside - there were fire trucks and a ladder propped up against the building below her window.

She wet towels to put under her doors to keep out smoke, but it wasn't working. She scooped up her daughter and grabbed her son's hand and ran.

The stairwell was crowded with neighbours. The descent was terrifying. As they went lower, the stairs became wet, and she feared she would fall.

Firefighters raced past, in and out of stairwells and hallways.

She had descended six floors - only halfway to the ground - when she passed a fallen body.

"We couldn't do anything," she said later.

"I almost got lost because it was so dark," she said.

New York City Fire Department officials and investigators working at the scene of the fire. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Firefighters arrived at the door of Mr Jose Soto, 40, and his girlfriend and her three children, and led them down a staircase that was like a smokestack.

As he wobbled his way down, step by step, Mr Soto heard children crying and people behind closed doors screaming "Help us!".

Firefighters with air tanks stayed in the building even after their supply ran out, searching for victims, said the fire commissioner, Mr Daniel A. Nigro.

Ms Cristal Diaz, 27, had been drinking coffee in the living room of her 15th-floor apartment with her family - two aunts and three cousins, one just two years old.

"And then everything was black," she said. "It happened so quick."

The smoke in the hall made it too dangerous to flee, so they wet towels for the doors and huddled at open windows for fresh air. They saw rescuers rolling bodies covered in sheets onto gurneys.

"We understood right then that they were dead," she said.

Eventually, the fire was extinguished, the smoke cleared. The afternoon dragged on, and families suddenly homeless sought help from the Red Cross responders. Some huddled in alcoves against the cold.

"It was devastating," Ms Rodriguez, who escaped with her two young children, said with tears in her eyes.

"My neighbours, they're like family to me."

At least 19 people died in the fire, nine of them children. More than 60 were injured, and many of those were in life-threatening danger.

Outside the apartment building, Mr Soto sat in his car, thinking about the cries he had heard as he fled.

"I could hear the mothers screaming," he said.

"How am I going to be able to forget that?"

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