A malfunctioning electric space heater in a bedroom caused the devastating fire that left at least 19 dead, including nine children, in a high-rise apartment building in the Bronx Sunday morning. The fire, New York's deadliest in three decades, started in a duplex unit spanning the second and third floors of the 19-story building, News 12 reports. "The fire consumed that apartment that was on two floors, and part of the hallway. The door to that apartment, unfortunately when the residents left, was left open. It did not close by itself," says the FDNY commissioner, per NY1. Because of that, smoke quickly spread throughout the building. Some residents of higher floors, unable to escape as smoke filled the hallways, stuffed wet towels under their doors and broke windows to let air in. Victims were found on every floor and in stairwells, many in respiratory or cardiac arrest, suffering not from burns but severe smoke inhalation, the commissioner says.
At least 66 people were hurt, with 13 hospitalized in critical condition. Accounts of harrowing escapes were starting to come out, the AP reports. Sandra Clayton, 61, managed to grab her dog and make her way through thick, black smoke that smelled like chemicals, then fumble down a crowded stairwell, falling three times and being trampled as she got back up—dropping her dog in one instance and being unable to find her. The dog was later found suffocated to death. Two other residents say they almost ignored the smoke alarm at first because the building was known for false alarms. By the time one of them, who lives on the 13th floor, realized this was no false alarm, the smoke was too thick to try the hallway. "All we could do was wait," he says, and fortunately after 45 minutes a firefighter arrived at the door to give the all-clear. (Read more Bronx stories.)