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Deadly Bronx apartment fire started by 3-year-old boy playing with stove

A fire that broke out in a Bronx apartment building Thursday night was started by a child playing with a stove, New York’s fire commissioner said Friday.

The fire was the city’s deadliest in more than 25 years.

“Fire marshals have been here all night trying to determine the cause and they have determined it,” Commissioner Daniel Nigro said at a news briefing from the site of the fire Friday morning.

A 3-year-old boy was playing with the burners on a stove in the kitchen of a first-floor apartment, Nigro said. His mother was not aware at the time but was alerted to the fire by the boy’s screams. She grabbed him and another child, a 2-year-old, and left the apartment, leaving the door open.

“Fire travels up,” Nigro said. “The stairway acted like a chimney. It took the fire so quickly up the stairs that people had very little time to react.”

Twelve people died and four others were critically injured. The victims ranged in age from 1 to over 50.

Some residents escaped down fire escapes, wearing only T-shirts and shorts in the bone-chilling cold.

Esther Sakyi, 49, was making a phone call in her fourth-floor bedroom around 7 p.m. when she smelled smoke.

“I rushed to open the door and the smoke just hit me and pushed me back, so I closed it and went to the fire escape,” she said. She fled into the frigid night before putting on her clothes.

“I was naked,” she said. “I didn’t have time to put clothes on. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Others fared worse.

At St. Barnabas Hospital, Brian Whittaker, 36, was supporting an injured friend’s relatives.

“It’s such a tragedy because they lost so many family members,” Whittaker said. “The rest of the family is upstairs in the back. They keep passing out and crying. The father is burnt up real bad.”

Whittaker’s friend was badly burned and was in a coma across town at Jacobi Medical Center. The man’s daughter and three nieces were killed, he said.

Milka Garcia, who lives on the fifth floor of the building, said her three children had already been evacuated when she came home.

Garcia, 40, said they saw lots of smoke and had to get out through an emergency door.

She said her 10-year-old daughter went to school with one of the victims, who’s about 8 years old.

“This is horrible,” Garcia said of the fire. “It makes me sad because they were my neighbors, and friends of my daughter’s.”

Speaking at the scene of the fire late Thursday night, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called it “an unspeakable tragedy.”

“In the middle of the holiday season, a time when families are together, tonight here in the Bronx there are families that have been torn apart,” he said.

The fire occurred in a five-story building in the Belmont neighborhood, a residential area known as the “Little Italy” of the Bronx. The building was home to a mix of residents, including Latinos and West Africans.

New York City records show that the building was cited for faulty smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in a first-floor apartment in August. Nigro said he didn’t know whether alarms in the first-floor apartment where the fire started were working at the time of the incident.

He said there was nothing structurally unusual about the building that would have contributed to its spread and that children often play with fire. But he added that the building fire showed how dangerous it can be to leave children unattended and urged people to follow fire safety precautions.

“You’ve seen the ads — close the door, close the door, close the door,” he said. “The results if you don’t are what happened here last night.”

The New York Daily News and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

nina.agrawal@latimes.com

Twitter: @AgrawalNina


UPDATES:

8:50 a.m.: This story was updated with officials confirming that the fire was started by a 3-year-old child playing with a stove and other details about why the fire spread so quickly.

7:20 a.m.: This story was updated with news about a possible cause of the fire.

This story was originally published at 6:40 a.m.

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