Woman feared for husband, son as as fire ravaged their Bronx building
PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Marta Sanchez was worshiping at St. Simon Stock-St. Joseph Church down the street from her Bronx apartment Sunday when she got a chilling phone call from a friend: Her building was on fire.
She immediately called her husband Guillermo and their son Maxwell, who, she knew, were home. When she was unable to reach them, she began to panic.
The fire quickly spread thick black smoke through the hallways and stairwells of the 19-story building at 333 East 181st St. It would eventually escalate to five alarms and leave at least 17 people dead, including eight children — making it the deadliest fire in New York City in 30 years.
But at that moment in church, all Marta knew was that the blaze was ravaging her building and that her loved ones were inside.
“I started praying. I started crying a little bit. I prayed. I said, ‘God, you know how much I believe in you. Take care of my family,’ ” she recalled.
Hours later, Guillermo and Maxwell were able to escape, but not altogether unscathed. The family is having trouble sleeping. A full day after the fire, father and son, who suffered considerable smoke inhalation, were still having difficulty breathing.
When they heard the fire alarms that morning, they called 911 and were instructed to stay put until they could be safely evacuated by firefighters.
“We heard people screaming for help. It was a traumatic experience,” Maxwell told Currents News. “The firemen took a while to get back to us. But me and my dad, we stayed in our rooms. We kept a wet towel on the door and put our masks on so we could protect ourselves from the fumes of the smoke.”
After what seemed like an eternity to the duo, firefighters reached them and said it was safe to evacuate. The Bronx high-rise has no fire escapes, so they were forced to walk down 16 flights of stairs to make their way to the sidewalk.
According to New York City Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro, about 200 firefighters and Emergency Medical Service personnel valiantly fought to pull residents from the smoke and treat them for their injuries.
“Our members — firefighters and EMS — tried diligently to bring some of these people back and to bring them out as quickly as they could,” Nigro said. “Their air tanks [only] contain a certain amount of air. There were many of our members and they continued working to try to get as many people out as they could.
“But the loss of one life is sad for us, much less multiple lives. Certainly, it is traumatizing when we can’t save a life. So we will have our counseling service be very busy after this with our members who are saddened by this terrible loss.”
In addition to the death toll, the blaze sent dozens of victims to area hospitals; 13 of them were reported in critical condition.
Many of the residents living in the building are immigrants from Gambia, in West Africa, according to Father Michael Kissane, pastor of St. Simon Stock-St. Joseph Church.
It was the deadliest fire in New York City since the Happy Land Social Club fire in the Bronx killed 87 people on March 25, 1990.
“The only thing I had on my mind that morning — I was thinking that the building was going to collapse,” Guillermo said.
“So by the grace of God, you know, we managed to get out of the building in time,” Maxwell added.
Once outside the building, father and son said, they struggled to catch their breath and saw haunting images of firefighters working feverishly to try to revive the victims who had been overcome by smoke inhalation. Finally, they managed to establish contact with Marta.
“I couldn’t reach them for two hours. When I talked to them, I was so happy,” she said.
The harrowing nightmare has served to increase her Catholic faith, Marta said, adding: “I always believed in God and now I believe it more. God saved my family. He is watching over us.”
But for Guillermo, the experience was so traumatic that he said he doesn’t ever want to go back into the building — not even to retrieve any belongings. Temporarily, the family is staying with a relative in New Jersey.
Fire officials said the blaze was started by a malfunctioning space heater in a third-floor apartment.
The door to that apartment did not close as the tenants fled the apartment, according to officials, who said the fire spread quickly as a result.
A New York City law requires that apartment buildings contain doors that automatically close. Mayor Adams confirmed that the fire building was equipped with self-closing doors and added that officials will be investigating to determine why the door to the apartment where the fire erupted didn’t close.
While the fire itself was mostly contained to the third-floor apartment where it started, the smoke that spread through the building is what caused the loss of life and most of the injuries, officials said.
Attention has now turned toward helping the victims. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, the American Red Cross, and the Fire Department have all offered assistance.
Father Eric Cruz, Bronx regional coordinator for Catholic Charities, said the organization is mounting a multi-pronged relief effort that involves raising funds, offering assistance with burials, working with social workers at the area hospitals caring for the victims and urging people to drop off emergency supplies to drop-off sites in the borough.
“What we’re doing is coordinating a collaborative effort to address the victims — families and individuals — with whatever needs, both immediate and in the long term, they have,” Father Cruz said. “We have to obviously begin with an outreach directly to the families.”
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Catholic Charities New York – catholiccharitiesny.org
Gambian Youth Organization – gofundme.com/f/relief-for-families-at-333- e-183rd-st
Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City – www1.nyc.gov/site/fund/initiatives/bronx- apartment-building-fire.page
Bottled water, blankets, pillows, clothing, coats, hats, scarves, shoes, towels, personal hygiene items, and other essentials can be donated at these sites in the Bronx:
** Riverdale Jewish Center
3700 Independence Ave.
** Anthony Avenue Community Garden
2078 Anthony Ave.
** Community Board 10
3165 E. Tremont Ave.
** The Bronx Woodlawn Collective
341 East 235th St.
** SAR Academy
655 W. 254 St.
** Gambian Youth Organization
214 E. 181 St.