New York City’s deadliest residential fire in decades spread through every floor of a Bronx apartment building within a matter of minutes, city officials said, killing 12 people and sending other residents scrambling outside into the cold and down fire escapes to safety.

“Tonight in the Bronx we’ve seen the worst fire tragedy in at least a quarter of a century,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said during a briefing late on Thursday. “It is an unspeakable tragedy, and families have been torn apart.”

The New York Police Department’s office of public information said the dead included girls aged one, two and seven, and an unidentified male child.

Four people were still fighting for their lives, according to de Blasio.

Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro called the fire “historic in its magnitude,” because of the number of lives lost. Excluding the Sept. 11 attacks, it was the worst fire in the city since 87 people were killed at a social club fire in the Bronx in 1990.

“In a department that’s certainly no stranger to tragedy, we’re shocked at this loss,” he said on Twitter.

Fire spread quickly

The blaze broke out on the first floor of a five-storey building just before 7 p.m. ET and quickly tore through the roughly century-old structure near the Bronx Zoo.

Some tenants of the building, a mix of native New Yorkers and Latino and African immigrants, climbed down fire escapes. But the flames moved so fast that many never made it out of their apartments. 

The cause of the fire remained under investigation. 

About 170 firefighters worked in bone-chilling cold, –9 C, to rescue about a dozen people from the building.

Thierno Diallo, 59, a security guard originally from Conakry, Guinea, who lives in a ground-floor apartment, said he was asleep when he heard banging on the door. It took him a moment to realize what was happening. 


Fire Department of New York (FDNY) personnel worked on the scene in -9 C. (Amr Alfiky/Reuters)

“Only when I heard people screaming ‘There’s a fire in the building!'” he said. “I heard somebody, ‘Oh! Fire! Fire! Fire!'”

He ran outside in his bathrobe, jacket and sandals.

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 had more than 20 units. It 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.

The death toll surpassed the 10, including nine children, in a four-storey home in another part of the Bronx in 2007. That blaze had been sparked by a space heater.