Desperate search for those missing in Bronx fire: ‘We’re still waiting’

Worshippers at a mosque in the Bronx sat shoeless in small groups along the edge of the carpeted floor. Services were still almost an hour away, but as coffee containers arrived and cups were poured, the imam tried to comfort people caught between anguish and grief.

>> Jazmine Hughes and Sean PiccoliThe New York Times
Published : 12 Jan 2022, 08:18 AM
Updated : 12 Jan 2022, 08:18 AM

They were all relatives of people still missing more than 24 hours after a fatal fire in a Bronx apartment building that killed 17, including eight children. As many as 12 members of the Masjid-Ur-Rahmah mosque were believed to have died in the fire, the imam, Musa Kabba, said.

“We give them the pictures. We give them the names. We give them the phone numbers. We’re still waiting for them to identify them,” Kabba said.

On Tuesday night, the city released a partial list of the deceased. The chaos of the rescue and the striking number of victims complicated the identification process.

On Sunday, more than 60 fire victims initially went to four different hospitals in the Bronx. Seventeen of them died within hours, all of the deaths attributed to severe smoke inhalation. About a dozen critically ill patients were stabilised at local hospitals and later transferred to facilities with specialised burn units in Manhattan, Westchester County and other parts of the Bronx.

Many survivors were also treated for severe smoke inhalation, which can cause people to become unconscious from lack of oxygen. Not everyone carried identification, and some residents shared similar names to other family members. Multiple members of a single family were close in age, also adding to confusion.

Features like tattoos, body jewellery, nail art and scars were used to piece together identities of the deceased, the medical examiner’s office said.

The office has used DNA matching to confirm identities by obtaining DNA from relatives and notifying immediate family members after a match has been made, City Hall officials said. The deliberate process has contributed to a lag in releasing the names of the deceased, officials said.

Shivonne Hutson, the city’s executive director of forensic investigations, said forensic examiners were also mindful of language and religious differences. Many of the building’s residents had relocated to the Bronx from Gambia, a small West African country with a largely Muslim population.

“Observances — these things extend not just in life, but they carry on into death,” Hutson said.

Age, too, was a complicating factor: Without any identification or little previous medical history, the children posed a particular challenge. “Kids don’t have all the records,” like fingerprints or dental records, that adults may have, Hutson said.

After the flames subsided and the fatal smoke dissipated, a new horror crept in: Other residents, family members and friends were left unsure about the status of loved ones. Hours rolled by, and many people across New York and Gambia spent hours in excruciating limbo, unsure who was alive or dead.

Some families called every hospital in the area, searching for missing relatives. Others visited on foot, desperate for answers.

Aid workers at Monroe College, which is serving as a temporary emergency response centre, have been relying on an unofficial list of the dead, injured, missing and displaced, compiled by a local community board member. He has tried to write down the names, contact information and needs of every person who shows up at the college, in an ad hoc intake list.

Gathering information is hard, in part because of language barriers, said Abdoulaye Cisse, a community outreach worker for CAIR-NY, a group that advocates for Muslims. Some residents speak English, but others speak only various combinations of French and the many languages of West Africa.

Fears of immigration authorities linger among some undocumented residents. And some families, he said, are deeply private or are in shock and not ready to talk about their situation.

Dustin Jones watched television footage of the Bronx fire from his apartment in the Chelsea area of Manhattan, frantically calling a friend who he thought lived in the building. Luckily, he was mistaken — she lived a few blocks away — but his relief didn’t last long.

He quickly learned he knew two residents of the building: Ramel Thompson, 44, and Dorel Anderson, 38, a couple. The three had met each other through a tight-knit disability community: Thompson and Anderson both have cerebral palsy, and Jones is an advocate for disability rights.

After failing to contact the couple, Jones and about 100 others, many of them relatives of the couple and members of the disabled community, began a 24-hour search for them, much of it online.

He also knew the couple lived on the 13th floor, and was particularly worried about Anderson, who uses a wheelchair.

Jones said he never considered contacting the city for assistance. Instead, he amplified the missing couple on social media, reached out to his media contacts and called friends for information, including a firefighter who had been on the scene. “We live in the age of social media, and I’ve seen miracles happen,” Jones said.

A relative eventually found the couple at Westchester Medical Center, in Valhalla, New York, on Monday, where they were transferred to an advanced burn unit. Anderson and Thompson were still being treated; Anderson’s wheelchair was missing.

Breanna Elleston, 27, said she heard her best friend Sera Janneh, 27, was missing Sunday. Elleston assumed that Janneh was in the hospital, unidentified. She called a few close friends and asked them to reach out to her. Their calls went straight to voicemail.

So Elleston made an Instagram post about her friend, and asked followers to share it, to “see if they knew anybody that worked in nearby hospitals, if they see her face, they could match it up with a picture.” There was still no luck.

Undeterred, Elleston and some friends planned to put up pictures around the Bronx. When she informed Janneh’s family of the plan, they told her Janneh had died.

Mohamed Kamra, too, was working a shift as a taxi driver when he learned that his family was caught in the blaze.

He and a relative frantically tried to locate their entire family. Soon, they found 6-year-old Jabu, 3-year-old Abubakary and baby Ceesay, not yet 1 year old. But it took hours for Kamra to locate his wife, Fatoumatia, or his eldest daughter, 8-year-old Mariam.

A volunteer at the Gambian Youth Organization in the Bronx sorts clothing donations on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, for survivors of an apartment building fire on Sunday. Officials initially said on Sunday that 19 people were killed in connection with the fire, but Mayor Eric Adams revised the number to 17 at a news conference on Monday. David Dee Delgado/The New York Times

Christina Kharem, a teacher and special education coach at Mariam’s school, spent her day on the phone with her principal calling hospitals around the city, trying to locate Miriam and her mother, while Kamra searched in person.

He found Mariam and Fatoumatia by Sunday evening. Each family member was in medically induced comas and on ventilators.

With Kamra’s permission, Kharem created an online fundraiser for the Kamra family around 3 a.m. Monday, asking for donations of both money and supplies. They got their first donation before dawn.

By Monday afternoon, Kamra had visited four of his hospitalised family members and was on his way to see a fifth.

Relieved that he tracked down his family, he remained optimistic Monday night that they would recover. “For me, right now, it’s no bad memory yet,” he said.

But for some, hope diminished as the hours went by without news.

Yusupha Jawara told CBS New York that he called 311 more than 40 times trying to learn the fate of his younger brother and sister-in-law, who lived in the building, a block from him.

“We tried all they said,” Jawara, 47, said. “Nothing is working for us now.”

He said he understood there were procedures to be followed. “But we need a closure on this to know whether they are alive or dead,” Jawara said. “That’s all we need. We are not asking for the bodies to be given to us right now. He’s alive or he’s dead. That’s all we need to know.”

At about 4:30 pm Monday, Jawara texted a reporter that he had received word: His brother and sister-in-law perished in the fire.

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