NEW YORK — More than a thousand community members filled the blocks outside the Islamic Cultural Center in the Bronx on a bitterly cold Sunday morning, streaming inside and into overflow tents to remember victims of an apartment fire days earlier. Inside, community leaders and local officials prayed over caskets draped in black — and called for change to ensure such a tragedy never happens again.
Last Sunday, a fire broke out inside of a 120-unit tower, sending residents fleeing through smoke-filled hallways. Seventeen people were killed, including eight children. Fumes from the fire engulfed the building, and a spokesperson for the medical examiner said the victims died of smoke inhalation — the youngest victim was 2 years old and the eldest was 50.
Sheikh Musa Drammeh, a religious leader and community activist in the Gambian immigrant community, led the memorial service. He said while Islamic funerals are typically closed to the public, the decision was made to open this service to draw public attention to the tragedy. Separate funerals were held in recent days for two of the victims at an Islamic center in Harlem, according to local reports.
At the service, 15 caskets were displayed prominently for attendees to see.
“We are doing this to make everyone here feel uncomfortable,” Drammeh said. He said he hoped the visual representation of the loss of life would motivate the policymakers present to take action to ensure a similar event never occurs again in New York.
If the residents had lived “in midtown Manhattan, we would not have the funeral. They would not need space heaters,” Drammeh said. He said the “condition in which they lived caused their death and it is preventable.”
“People are dying because they lived in the Bronx. They will never achieve their American Dream because they lived in the Bronx. Their families will never ever see them again because they lived in the Bronx,” Drammeh said.
He added: “We are all here this Sunday because we live in the Bronx.”
The 17 victims were identified by city officials as Isatou Jabbie, 31; Hagi Jawara, 47; Ousmane Konteh, 2; Sera Janneh, 27; Seydou Toure, 12; Haouwa Mahamadou, 5; Haji Dukary, 49; Haja Dukureh, 37; Mustapha Dukureh, 12; Mariam Dukureh, 11; Fatoumata Dukureh, 5; Fatoumata Drammeh, 50; Foutmala Drammeh, 21; Muhammed Drammeh, 12; Nyumaaisha Drammeh, 19; Omar Jambang, 6; and Fatoumata Tunkara, 43.
Speakers at the funeral underlined how much more can be done to ensure safety measures are in place in affordable housing developments. Local elected officials and leaders echoed that assessment, especially for Black, Brown and immigrant communities like the ones living in the Bronx complex.
Officials have said a malfunctioning space heater sparked the fire, and two interior doors left open enabled deadly smoke to spread throughout the building. Investigators are looking into why the doors were left open, as regulations require that the doors be equipped with the self-closing mechanisms.
City officials have said the safety doors in the high rise had been repeatedly flagged by inspectors for failing to close properly. The Twin Parks North West complex, where the fire occurred, was issued at least two violation notices from the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development for faulty self-closing doors, in 2017 and in 2019, the department told The Washington Post.
A trio of investment firms purchased the Bronx tower two years ago, The Post has reported — firms that hold assets worth billions of dollars and have seen their portfolios grow with deals based on government incentives.
Speaking during the funeral, New York Attorney General Letitia James said those “responsible for neglect in that building and for so many fires in the Bronx must be held accountable.”
“No individuals should have to have space heaters. No individuals should have doors that do not close,” James said. “There were conditions in that building that should have been corrected. There were conditions in that building that should have been inspected.”
New York Mayor Eric Adams (D) also addressed the mourners, saying it’s “time to end those inequalities so we don’t have our babies and our families torn apart by tragedies.”
The state on Sunday also announced a $2 million fund to aid tenants impacted by the fire. “I want you to know that the Bronx is not only a part of New York City, the Bronx is a part of New York State,” Lt. Gov. Brian A. Benjamin said during the service.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) pledged to do more to “help our immigrant families, our Gambian families, our Bronx families.”
Eleven of the fire victims were Gambian, including six of the children, Gambia’s foreign ministry said in a Tuesday statement posted to Facebook.
Schumer said he and Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), who represents the Bronx, worked to open the U.S. Embassy in Gambia, which he said had been closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. “The families in Gambia who wish to come here and be with all of you in these very, very difficult times will start coming early this week,” Schumer said.
Mourners braved temperatures well below freezing to watch the service from one of two tents erected on East 166th Street. The overflow capacity was quickly exhausted. Many were turned away and settled for craning their necks from the sidewalk to hear the service from a speaker system.
During the service, Drammeh referenced those watching from outside the doors, saying their “presence is felt and appreciated.”
Local leaders, including Bronx Borough President Vanessa L. Gibson, pledged to continue to provide help as the community rebuilds.
“We are bruised as a community, but we are not broken. We are damaged as a borough but we are not destroyed,” Gibson said. “Through our greatest hour of need, God is with us through this storm. If he brings us to this storm, he will see us through this storm.”
Firozi reported from Washington. Timothy Bella in Washington contributed to this report.