NEW YORK – Several families whose loved ones died or were injured while trying to escape a smoked-filled Bronx apartment building sued the owners Tuesday, alleging safety violations that led to the wrongful deaths of 17 people, including eight children.
The five lawsuits were filed on behalf of the families by Benjamin Crump, a civil rights attorney based in Florida, and the New York law firm Weitz & Luxenberg.
“We have a lot of the families who paid such a tragic loss in the apartment fire,” Crump said during a news conference outside the building, saying violations of city safety rules “caused unspeakable loss of life and injury to these families, mostly from Africa.”
A malfunctioning electric space heater started the blaze the morning of Jan. 9, fire officials said.
While the fire damaged only a small part of the building, it produced caustic smoke that quickly engulfed the complex. The suffocating smoke rose through a stairwell of the 19-story building and killed people as they attempted to flee.
“These Black families who lost so much that seem to be marginalized not only before the tragic fire broke out, but even in the aftermath,” said Crump, who gained attention as spokesperson for the family of George Floyd.
The lawsuits, filed in Superior Court in the Bronx, name Bronx Park Phase III Preservation, the Bronx Phase III Housing Co. and three investment groups as defendants.
The lawsuits do not specify monetary damages, nor does it mention specific safety violations.
But another attorney for the families, Larry Goldhirsch, said those specifics will be identified in the coming weeks, including malfunctioning door springs and windows that could not open.
A spokesperson for the building’s owners denied they were responsible.
“The complaints filed today allege that last month’s tragic fire was caused by the negligence of the building’s owners and their agents,” spokesperson James Yolles said. “We believe the facts will show that allegation to be false.”
Several relatives of the fire victims spoke at the news conference to express frustration over the uncertainties spawned by the fire as they look for new places to live. Some remain in hotel rooms.
“What happened on Jan. 9 was very devastating and tragic, and very unexpected, and could have been avoided. I lost my sister in the fire. She was trying to come down to save my family,” said Fatima Janneh, whose sister Sera, 27, was among those killed.
"We need justice for the families that lost people, as well as the other tenants in the building. We’re all victims to what happened here,” Janneh said.
The plaintiffs include the mother of a 2-year-old boy who died and parents who lost their 12-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. They also include a 20-year-old mother whose 3-month old son was hospitalized.
Many residents were immigrants from Gambia. Their shared origins, with some of them hailing from the same village, fostered a close-knit community.
While Tuesday’s lawsuit — among several already filed on behalf of the victims and their families — did not allege civil right violations, some families say they have felt forgotten and marginalized.
“We may be Black and brown and African and immigrant, but we’re working class people, and we’re not fungible. We’re not disposable. You can’t just throw us away just because, you know, we have a certain socioeconomic status,” said Fatiah Touray, who moved away from the building after spending 23 years there.
Some residents have bemoaned living conditions that led to the need for space heaters in some apartments.
Some residents have agreed to move into another development near the damaged building, Twin Parks North West, Yolles said.
“We continue to work around the clock with our property management, social service and relocation assistance teams to support and assist Twin Parks North West residents following last month’s tragic fire, including providing them with multiple high-quality options for relocation in the Bronx," Yolles said.
In their haste to escape, the occupants of the apartment where the fire started left their front door open behind them.
Spring-loaded hinges that were supposed to shut the door automatically did not work. A second door left open in a stairwell on the 15th floor acted as a flue, sucking smoke upward.
Fire investigators said both doors should have been self-closing to help contain the spreading smoke, but that the doors stayed fully open. It was not clear if the doors failed mechanically or if they had been manually disabled.