Outpouring of grief as victims of Bronx fire laid to rest

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A Bronx community has gathered to pay its last respects to loved ones a week after a fire filled a high-rise apartment building with thick, suffocating smoke that killed 17 people, including eight children.

The mass funeral capped a week of prayers and mourning within a close-knit community hailing from west Africa, most with connections to the tiny country of Gambia.

Others remained in hospital, some in a serious condition, because of smoke inhalation.

Amid the mourning, there was also frustration and anger as family, friends and neighbours of the dead tried to make sense of the tragedy.

Apartment Building Fire
New York City Mayor Eric Adams speaks during the funeral service (Yuki Iwamura/AP)

The dead ranged in age from two to 50. Entire families were killed, including a family of five. Others left behind orphaned children.

There were 15 caskets lining the front of the prayer hall. They ranged in size, some no bigger than small coffee tables containing the bodies of the youngest who died.

“One week they were with us … now they’re gone,” said Musa Kabba, the imam at the Masjid-Ur-Rahmah mosque, where many of the dead had prayed.

Earlier in the week, burial services were held for two children at a mosque in Harlem.

Apartment Building Fire
A memorial for the victims of the apartment building fire in the Bronx (Seth Wenig/AP)

All week, family members had been anxious to lay their loved ones to rest to honour Islamic tradition, which calls for burial as soon after death as possible. But complications over identifying the victims delayed their release to funeral homes.

All of the dead collapsed and died after being overcome by smoke while trying to descend down the stairway, which acted as a flue for the heavy smoke.

The funeral was held at the Islamic Cultural Centre, two miles from the 19-storey apartment building where New York City’s deadliest fire in three decades unfolded.

Parts of the service were delivered in Soninke, a language spoken in Gambia and other parts of west Africa.

Hundreds filled the mosque and many hundreds more filled tents outside or huddled in the cold to pay their respects. The services were beamed on to jumbo screens outside and in other rooms of the mosque.

“There’s outcry. There’s injustice. There’s neglect,” said Sheikh Musa Drammeh, who was among those leading the response to the tragedy,

Officials blamed a faulty space heater in a third-floor apartment for the blaze on January 9, which spewed plumes of suffocating smoke that quickly rose through the stairwell of the 19-storey building.

Some residents said space heaters were sometimes needed to supplement the building’s heat and that repairs were not always timely.

“We want the world to know that they died because they lived in the Bronx,” Drammeh asserted. “If they lived in midtown Manhattan, they would not have died. Why? Because they wouldn’t need to use space heaters. This is a public outcry. Therefore, there has to be responsibility from the elected officials to change the conditions that cause death every single day.”

New York City Mayor Eric Adams, US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin, as well as two officials representing the Gambian government, attended the funeral services.

“When tragedies occur, we come together,” Mr Schumer said.

“I am here to express the pain all New Yorkers are experiencing,” Mr Adams added.

New York Attorney General Letitia James vowed to investigate, saying “there were conditions in that building that should have been corrected”.

The investigation into the fire is ongoing.

Much of the focus centres on the catastrophic spread of smoke from the apartment. The fire itself was contained to one unit and an adjoining hallway, but investigators said the door to the apartment and a stairway door many floors up had been left open, creating a flue that allowed smoke to quickly spread throughout the building.

New York City fire codes generally require apartment doors at larger apartment developments to be spring-loaded so that they slam shut automatically.

In the wake of the deaths, a coalition of officials announced a legislative agenda they hoped would stiffen fire codes and building standards to prevent similar tragedies.

Fundraisers have collected nearly $400,000 (£290,000). The Mayor’s Fund, Bank of America and other groups said 118 families displaced by the fire would each get $2,250 (£1,645) in aid.

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