Wesley Patterson, 28, a resident for more than 20 years, shuffled into his bathroom to wash up at around 11 a.m. when his girlfriend knocked on the door. She said she’d just looked out the window and had seen flames coming out of the apartment next door.
Thick black smoke began to flood their apartment. Within seconds, Patterson could barely see his girlfriend or her brother — and they were on the other side of the room.
“We were just trying to breathe,” he said. He rushed them to a back window and the promise of fresh air and some relief. That window was very hot to the touch, burning his hands, but he fought it open. The move backfired: Smoke began flooding into the apartment. He slammed the window back down.
Frantic scenes like this were playing out in apartments throughout the 19-story building, as parents and children sought escape from homes that were suddenly black and airless. Tony Johnson, 54, an Army veteran, scrambled for his old gas mask but couldn’t find it.
Mamadou Wague, 47, lived on the third floor with nine other family members. “One of the kids said, ‘Oh, Daddy! Daddy! There’s a fire!’ ” he said. “I get up and there’s smoke in the kids’ rooms.”
He went door to door, pounding, rushing his family to the front room to escape. He was missing one child — a daughter, Nafisha, 8 years old. He rushed to her room and found her screaming in her bed.
“I just grab her and run,” he said. In the hallway, thick smoke made a blur of passing neighbours. “It was dark,” said Wague’s son, Hame Wague, 16. “We were all coughing.”
It would not be until later that Mamadou Wague realised he’d suffered burns to his lips and nose — injuries he believes he received while pulling his daughter from her bed. “I didn’t think about anything except getting her out,” he said.
Dana Nicole Campbell, 47, a groundskeeper, was working at a nearby park when one of her four teenage children called. Smoke was coming into their apartment on the third floor, they told her. Campbell told them to put damp towels at the doors and raced to the building.
She saw her children, one by one, leap safely out of their third-floor window onto a pile of garbage bags and a mattress. Deep relief washed over her.
The firefighters had arrived to a chaotic scene. Smoke poured out of a second-story window and the one directly above — but also from different windows many stories higher and on the other side, as if various fires had started at the same time.
A fire alarm had sounded, but that happened regularly, and it always turned out to be a false alarm, so most residents ignored it as usual. Dilenny Rodriguez, 38, had been doing her chores in her 12th-floor apartment where she lived with her 10-year-old son and toddler daughter when she smelled smoke. She called a neighbour as she looked outside — there were fire trucks and a ladder propped up against the building below her window.
She wet towels to put under her doors to keep out smoke, but it wasn’t working. She scooped up her daughter and grabbed her son’s hand and ran. The stairwell was crowded with neighbours. The descent was terrifying. As they went lower, the stairs became wet, and she feared she would fall.
Firefighters raced past, in and out of stairwells and hallways. She had descended six floors — only halfway to the ground — when she passed a fallen body.
“We couldn’t do anything,” she said later. Firefighters were giving people CPR. “I almost got lost because it was so dark,” she said.
Firefighters arrived at the door of Jose Soto, 40, and his girlfriend and her three children, and led them down a staircase that was like a smokestack. As he wobbled his way down, step by step, Soto heard children crying and people behind closed doors screaming, “Help us!”
Firefighters with air tanks stayed in the building even after their supply ran out, searching for victims, said the fire commissioner, Daniel A. Nigro.
Cristal Diaz, 27, had been drinking coffee in the living room of her 15th-floor apartment with her family — two aunts and three cousins, one just 2 years old. “And then everything was black,” she said. “It happened so quick.”
The smoke in the hall made it too dangerous to flee, so they wet towels for the doors and huddled at open windows for fresh air. They saw rescuers rolling bodies covered in sheets onto gurneys. “We understood right then that they were dead,” she said.
Eventually, the fire was extinguished, the smoke cleared. The afternoon dragged on, families suddenly homeless seeking help from the Red Cross responders. Some huddled in alcoves against the cold.
“It was devastating,” Rodriguez, who escaped with her two young children, said with tears in her eyes. “My neighbours, they’re like family to me.”
Many of the injured victims were taken to the Jacobi Medical Center emergency room, and relatives followed. Maria Gonzalez, 41, said her nephew Danell Gonzalez was on the ninth floor and escaped by crawling but suffered smoke inhalation. Elsewhere in the hospital, Aisha Dukuray, 28, sought information on 20 relatives who live in the building, all of Gambian descent. “I’m like all over the place right now,” she said.
At least 19 people died in the fire, nine of them children. An additional 44 were injured, and 13 of those were in life-threatening danger.
Outside the apartment building, Soto sat in his car, thinking about the cries he had heard as he fled. “I could hear the mothers screaming,” he said. “How am I going to be able to forget that?”
Mamadou Wague, his face burned, stood with his family, all wrapped in blankets, replaying the scene at his daughter’s bed over and over. “I just thank God my family is safe,” he said.
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