As flames closed in, trapping Maria Batiz and her 8-month-old granddaughter in a burning apartment building, her daughter could hear the growing panic in her mother’s voice.
“We’re going to die in here!” Batiz, 58, screamed during a final phone call to her daughter, the baby’s mother.
Batiz and the baby were found dead in a bathtub where they had sought refuge as a fast-moving fire tore through their building Thursday night in the New York borough of the Bronx. “She was frantic,” said Fernando Batiz, the dead woman’s brother. “I guess the smoke overcame her.”
The fire, which killed 12 people, was started by a child playing with a stove, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said Friday.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called the blaze, the city’s deadliest in more than 25 years, “an unspeakable tragedy.”
“In the middle of the holiday season, a time when families are together, tonight here in the Bronx there are families that have been torn apart,” he said.
The fire occurred in a five-story brick building in the Belmont neighborhood, a residential area known as Little Italy of the Bronx. The building was home to a mix of residents, including Latinos and West Africans.
Not counting the Sept. 11 attacks, It was New York’s deadliest fire since a blaze at the Happy Land Social Club, less than a mile away, killed 87 people in 1990.
Nigro said fire investigators worked through the night and determined that the blaze originated in a first-floor apartment, where a 3-year-old boy had been playing with the burners on a stove in the kitchen.
The boy’s mother was alerted to the fire by the boy’s screams, Nigro said. She grabbed him and another child, a 2-year-old, and fled the apartment, leaving the door open.
“Fire travels up,” Nigro said. “The stairway acted like a chimney. It took the fire so quickly up the stairs that people had very little time to react.”
Flames blocked some people from exiting down the stairwell of the walk-up building, while others were overcome by smoke.
Twelve people died and four others were critically injured. The victims were spread out over multiple floors, authorities said.
Some of the victims were identified by police. In addition to Batiz and her granddaughter, they include four members of the same family: Karen Stewart-Francis, 37; her daughters Kylie Francis, 2, and Charmela Francis, 7; and her niece Shantay Young, 19.
Stewart-Francis’ sister-in-law, Rosette Morgan-Stewart of Queens, said her husband identified the bodies. The Stewart family is a large, loving family from Jamaica, she said, and they were all reeling over the deaths.
“Somewhere in my head, I want to think it’s a dream, and I’m going to see them walk through the door saying, ‘We’re OK,’” Morgan-Stewart told the Los Angeles Times.
She remembered her sister-in-law as a lively woman who loved to dance. For much of her adult life, she took care of her nieces and nephews, not interested in having her own children. But then she fell in love, got married and had children.
“I really still can’t believe that they’re dead,” she said.
Neighbors described seeing thick smoke emanating from the building’s windows and people climbing down fire escapes, some wearing only T-shirts and shorts in the bone-chilling cold, with temperatures in the teens.
As many as 20 people were out on fire escapes when firefighters arrived, about three minutes after the first call came in just before 7 p.m., Nigro said. Firefighters were able to rescue at least 12 people.
Marisol Santana, 35, who lives across the street from the apartment building, said she came outside late Thursday after smelling gas and saw firefighters pull out a child, whom she estimated to be under 5, who was still on fire.
“They tried to put it out, but they couldn’t,” she said. “It’s tragic what happened to those families.”
Esther Sakyi, 49, was making a phone call in her fourth-floor bedroom about 7 p.m. when she smelled smoke.
“I rushed to open the door and the smoke just hit me and pushed me back, so I closed it and went to the fire escape,” she said. She fled into the frigid night before putting on clothes.
“I was naked,” she said. “I didn’t have time to put clothes on. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Milka Garcia, who lives on the fifth floor of the building, said her three children had already been evacuated when she came home.
Garcia, 40, said the children saw lots of smoke and had to get out through an emergency door.
She said her 10-year-old daughter went to school with one of the victims, who is about 8 years old.
“This is horrible,” Garcia said. “It makes me sad because they were my neighbors, and friends of my daughter.”
New York City records show that the apartment building in August had open violations for faulty smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in a first-floor apartment. Nigro said he didn’t know whether alarms in the first-floor apartment where the fire started were working at the time of the incident.
He said there was nothing structurally unusual about the building that would have contributed to the fire’s spread. But he added that the fire showed how dangerous it could be to leave children unattended and urged people to follow fire safety precautions.
“You’ve seen the ads — close the door, close the door, close the door,” he said. “The results if you don’t are what happened here last night.”
(Times staff writer Agrawal reported from New York and Times staff writer Cosgrove from Los Angeles. Poggio reports for The New York Daily News.)
© 2017 Los Angeles Times
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