An apartment building fire that killed at least 17 people in the Bronx borough of New York on Sunday (Jan. 9) has left members of the city’s Gambian community in shock.
Three children and two parents were from one family, the Dukurays, who lived on the top floor of the 19-story Twin Parks North West building. The fire was caused by a faulty space heater on the third floor, city officials said. Smoke traveled upstairs through a malfunctioning open doorway, making it difficult for many residents who left their apartments to escape.
Built in 1972 and praised as an affordable housing experiment, the building did not have a sprinkler system—a legal requirement—nor did it have outdoor fire escapes, according to the New York Times.
“This is very unfortunate, and I think I dare say that the majority of the victims apparently have their roots from Gambia,” Dawda Fadera, the Gambia’s ambassador to the US, said at a news conference held by New York City mayor Eric Adams. “Our country is currently in a state of shock.”
A GoFundMe fundraiser by the Gambian Youth Organization, whose office is located close to Twin Parks, had an initial target of $200,000 but has passed $700,000 after at least 15,000 donations, at time of writing.
The outpouring of support shows the closeness of the community of Gambians within the Bronx. Immigration from the small west African country of 2 million people to the US became popular during the late 1980’s. They gravitate to existing tight-knit communities in cities like Chicago and New York, and form family ties around shared cultures like Gambian jollof rice on Ramadan nights, and regular worship at the neighborhood mosques.
“This building is the cornerstone for us in this community,” Haji Dukuray, a 61-year old relative of the deceased family of five, said of Twin Parks. The community also includes Malians, and people from other African countries.
The Bronx fire is one of the first tests of leadership for Eric Adams, who visited Ghana for a spiritual retreat in December ahead of the start of his tenure on Jan. 1. A former police captain, he said the fire was one of New York’s deadliest in modern times and wants to know how it could have been prevented from becoming fatal.
Some of the problems with the Twin Parks building have begun to emerge in the wake of the incident.
Residents say the building’s doors are faulty, creating a situation where they stay open unless someone deliberately closes them. Also, space heaters are a fire risk because the building’s heating just wasn’t functioning well enough to keep residents warm. “If you don’t use a space heater then you use your oven,” a resident told the New York Post.
Adams said New York City laws required doors to close automatically, and fire marshals will investigate. He also wants to run public service announcements that, he says, should help people prevent future tragedies: “We’re going to double down on the closing the door PSA that I knew as a child, and we want other generations to understand that.”
For victims’ families, however, the feeling is a struggle between heartbreak, disbelief, and anxiety. Some residents are still missing, and the first step towards closure is for relatives to receive their bodies for immediate burial in accordance with Muslim rites.
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