NEW YORK (AP) — A preschooler toying with the burners on his mother’s stove accidentally sparked New York City’s deadliest fire in decades, an inferno that quickly overtook an apartment building and blocked the main escape route, the fire commissioner said Friday.
A dozen people died , and four others were fighting for their lives a day after the flames broke out in the century-old building near the Bronx Zoo
The 3½-year-old-boy, his mother and another child were able to flee their first-floor apartment. But they left the apartment door open behind them, and it acted like a chimney that drew smoke and flames into a stairwell. From there, the fire spread throughout the five-story building, authorities said.
One family lost four members: Karen Stewart-Francis, her daughters, 2-year-old Kiley Francis and 7-year-old Kelly Francis, and their cousin, 19-year-old Shawntay Young, relatives said. Stewart-Francis’ husband, Holt Francis, was hospitalized, the family said.
“My mother collapsed and is in the hospital; my big sister is not yet responsive,” Kevin Stewart, brother and uncle to the victims,said yesterday.
“I’m still trying to come to terms. I’m not a hundred percent there yet. I’m the only one not at the hospital because I couldn’t deal with it. I just left there and came home,” Stewart said.
“So as far as my state of mind, I honestly can’t call it just yet. Right now I could only say shock and disbelief,” he added.
His sister, Karen, 37, who worked at a hotel in Manhattan; her two-year-old daughter Kylie Francis; stepdaughter Kelesha Francis, who Stewart said was about five years old; and 18-year-old daughter Shantae Young all perished in the blaze that killed 12 people and which New York Mayor Bill de Blasio described as the deadliest in the city in 25 years.
Stewart said that Karen’s husband, who was at home when the fire started, is battling for life in the Jacobi Medical Center. “We’re not a hundred percent sure if he’s going to make it,” the distraught man said.
The city housing department said investigators would look into why the door did not close automatically, though Mayor Bill de Blasio said there was “nothing problematic about the building that contributed to this tragedy.”
At least 20 people scrambled out via fire escapes on a bitterly cold night, but others could not.
People had very little time to react,” Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said. Firefighters arrived in just over three minutes and saved some people, but “this loss is unprecedented.”
Fernando Batiz said his 56-year-old sister, Maria Batiz, and her 8-month-old granddaughter also died, though the baby’s mother survived.
“The smoke, I guess, overcame her. Everything happened so quick,” Batiz said. He described his sister, a home care attendant, as a selfless person who helped him when he was homeless.
“I don’t know what to think. I’m still in shock,” he said.
“I don’t know what to do, and I don’t know how to feel,” Stewart-Francis’ mother, Ambrozia Stewart, told The New York Times. “Four at one time — what do I do?”
Young lived in the basement but had gone upstairs to visit Stewart-Francis in her fifth-floor apartment, said Young’s boyfriend, Kenyon George.
Stewart, who lives in Queens, said the family is from Spanish Town, St Catherine. He said he has spoken with another of his brothers, who lives in Atlanta, and they have discussed the possibility of sending the bodies of Kelesha and Shantae to Jamaica for burial.
“We don’t want to send the baby there because she was not born in Jamaica, and we can’t separate the mother and the baby, so that’s the debate we’re having right now,” he said.
However, they are awaiting word from the eldest brother in Jamaica “because he’s like the patriarch of the family”, Stewart explained.
“It’s a lot to take in, because I lost my father in 2010,” Stewart added.
Yesterday, Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Minister Senator Kamina Johnson Smith expressed sadness at the tragic loss of life in the fire.
“We are working with our Consulate General and the authorities in New York to obtain further information on the situation,” Johnson Smith said in a statement.