The fire swept through a fifth-floor apartment at a housing authority building. The youngest victim was 3 years old, the police said. James Barron and Nate Schweber of The New York Times report.
The smoke awakened the neighbours first — not the sight of thick, gray-black clouds outside Apartment 5G, but the smell. Then there were the sounds in the quiet of the night: a noise like an explosion and the crackling of glass as windows flew out, and the voices of children — screaming.
A fire that officials said apparently began on the kitchen stove was racing through the three-bedroom apartment in Harlem. Six people were trapped inside. None of them would survive.
"You could hear when they would say, 'Mom,'" said Jennifer Nunn-Stanley, who lives across the street and heard the shouts coming from inside the burning building.
The Fire Department sent 100 firefighters to the site of the fire, at 2441 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard at 142nd Street, a 109-year-old building run by the New York City Housing Authority. But the fire commissioner, Daniel A. Nigro, said that when firefighters reached the apartment on the fifth floor, "The fire met them at the front door."
They found the six victims, two adults and four children ages 3 to 11, unconscious in bedrooms at the back of the apartment.
"Every bit of that apartment had fire damage," Nigro said, adding that the fire appeared to have started in the kitchen, "on the stove."
Mayor Bill de Blasio said that "all signs point to simply a horrible, terrible accident," but added that an investigation to determine the cause would be conducted.
Officials said it was the city's deadliest fire since December 2017, when 12 people in a Bronx apartment building died. That fire started when a 3-year-old boy played with the knobs on a kitchen stove.
Nigro said firefighters Wednesday did not hear smoke-detector alarms as they worked their way through the smoke. Hours later, at a briefing with Nigro and the mayor, the interim chairwoman of the housing authority said the apartment had a smoke and carbon monoxide alarm. It was installed in June 2017 and tested in January, the chairwoman, Kathryn Garcia, said.
Nigro said the layout of the apartment worked against getting out. The kitchen was the room closest to the front door and the fire spread from there toward two bedrooms where the victims had been sleeping.
"They were unable to get to either the door of that apartment or the windows that were on the fire escape," he said.
Neighbours identified the family in Apartment 5G as Andrea Pollidore, 45, and her children, Nakiyra, 11; Andre, 8; Brooklyn, 6, and Elijah, 3. A police spokesman confirmed their names and identified the sixth victim as Matt Abdularaph, 32, a brother of Pollidore.
Patricia Flowers, who lives down the hall, said that she often heard the children playing in the hallway and that there was another familiar sound: the family's small, energetic dog. Flowers remembered having seen the children pushing their bicycles into the elevator Tuesday afternoon, heading outside to enjoy the sunny weather after days of rain.
Jolted awake by someone shouting in the middle of the night, Flowers heard the sound of the fire in Apartment 5G.
"I could hear the crackling sounds in their apartment, like everything was burning," she said.
Records from the Department of Buildings indicated that the building had not been cited for violations for smoke detectors or fire escapes. It has four open violations for failing to conduct safety inspections of the elevator going back to 2016.
Three other people suffered minor injuries from smoke inhalation when the building was being evacuated.
Jesse Scott, who lives across the street, watched as the fifth and sixth floors of the building appeared to explode.
"Suddenly, there was a big fireball," he said. "It just blasted out. Everything came out. All the windows came out."
Others described a harrowing run to safety as residents raced down smoke-filled stairways.
Firefighters declared the blaze under control at 3:19am. By sunrise, the damage was apparent. The upper corner of the building was scarred by black streaks.
A group of relatives of some of the victims stood in a circle on the street, praying amid tears.
The building is part of the Frederick E. Samuel Houses, a group of 40 five- to seven-story buildings operated by the New York City Housing Authority. More than 1,400 people live in the complex.
In February 2017, the Houses failed an inspection from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees public housing authorities across the country.
HUD routinely inspects subsidised housing developments to ensure that conditions are sanitary, safe and in good repair. Inspectors are supposed to check for defective smoke detectors and to deduct points for safety and health hazards, like mould or peeling paint.
Properties are scored on a 100-point scale, with 60 points needed to pass. The Harlem development fell 1 point short, scoring 59 in 2017, its latest inspection, according to general results posted on HUD's website.
Without a more detailed report of the inspection, however, it was unclear why the development received a failing score or whether smoke detectors were a problem.
Written by: James Barron and Nate Schweber
Photographs by: James Keivom, Greg Vigliotti
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES