At least 12 people were killed in a blaze at a Bronx apartment building on Thursday night in what New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called the city’s worst fire tragedy in a quarter-century.
The dead included four children: a 1-year-old girl, a 2-year-old girl, a 7-year-old girl and an unidentified boy.
Four other people were critically injured when the fire broke out on the first floor of the five-story building shortly before 7 p.m. ET.
De Blasio described the fire as “an unspeakable tragedy.” He warned that the death toll could rise.
“In the middle of the holiday season, a time when families are together, tonight here in the Bronx there are families that have been torn apart,” the mayor said. “Based on the information we have now, this will rank as one of the worst losses of life to a fire in many, many years.”
Firefighters rescued at least 12 people with first responders dealing with temperatures in the teens and wind making it feel like the single digits, NBC New York reported.
Maria Bonilla lives a block away and was outside waiting to hear word on a friend’s 8-month-old child.
“There was a lot of people coming out in stretchers, burned,” she told reporters at the scene. “There was fire, really bad fire. It was crazy.”
Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said that the fire began on the first floor and quickly spread upstairs into the building, which has 25 apartments. Victims were found on various floors, he said.
“In a department that’s certainly no stranger to tragedy, we’re shocked by this loss,” Nigro said. “This tragedy is without question historic in its magnitude here, and our hearts go out to every family that lost a loved one here and everyone that’s fighting for their lives.”
Excluding the Sept. 11 attacks, it was the worst fire in the city since 87 people were killed at a social club in the Bronx in 1990.
Local resident Robert Gonzalez, who has a friend who lives in the building, told the Associated Press that she got out on a fire escape as a neighbor fled with five children.
“When I got here, she was crying,” Gonzalez said.
Thierno Diallo, 59, a security guard who lives in a ground floor apartment, told the AP that he was asleep and heard banging on the door.
“I heard people screaming, ‘There’s a fire in the building!'” he said. “I heard somebody, ‘Oh! Fire! Fire! Fire!'”
Diallo said the apartment building has tenants who hail from all over the world.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Many questions remained in the immediate aftermath of the blaze, including how the fire spread so quickly in a brick building that was built after catastrophic fires at the turn of the 20th century ushered in an era of tougher enforcement of fire codes.
The building was not new enough that it was required to have modern-day fireproofing, like sprinkler systems and interior steel construction.
Witnesses described seeing burned bodies being carried away on stretchers and young girls who had escaped standing barefoot outside with no coats.
Twum Bredu, 61, arrived in the neighborhood looking for his brother, who had been staying with a family in the building. The family, a husband and wife and four children, got out. But there was no word about his brother.
“I’ve been calling his phone, it’s ringing, but nobody picks up,” Bredu said. “He was in his room, and we don’t know what happened.”