NEW YORK >> The man on the gurney looked so familiar, but in the commotion of a big-city emergency room, Yusupha Jawara quickly turned his attention back to other people seeking medical help at St. Barnabas Hospital.
After a deadly blaze broke out at a Bronx apartment building, Jawara, who lives nearby, rushed to the scene and helped transport people to the hospital. But as Sunday wore on, his concern about his family grew. His brother Hagi did not answer the phone. Neither did his sister-in-law.
Then he thought back to that brief glance of the man whose hair and partially masked face looked so much like his brother. It couldn’t be, he thought. Surely, his brother would have been safe on the 18th floor, far from the fire that started 15 stories below.
“I was just helping the EMS transport one person to the hospital when I saw him — somebody similar like him — on a stretcher being brought to the ER,” Jawara said today as his family began making funeral plans for their loved ones. “At that time, I didn’t have the focus to know that it was him.”
Jawara’s brother and sister-in-law, Isatou Jabbie, were among the 17 people who died as they tried to flee through the smoke-filled stairwell of the 19-story tower. The victims of the the city’s deadliest fire in more than three decades included eight children, three of them from one family. All of them died of smoke inhalation, according to the medical examiner.
Fire officials say a malfunctioning electric space heater started the blaze, which damaged only a small part of the building. But smoke engulfed the complex after tenants fleeing the unit where the flames began left the apartment door open behind them in their hurry to escape.
Spring-loaded hinges that were supposed to shut the door automatically did not work. A second door also left open in a stairwell higher up acted as a flue, sucking smoke upward.
A fire in the mid-1980s in the same apartment building produced heavy smoke that rose from floor to floor, but everyone survived because they knew to stay in their homes, fire officials said in a training publication.
In the 1986 fire, smoke from burning garbage traveled through a trash compactor shaft and spread across the building, but it did not produce the deadly results of the recent fire because residents mostly stayed put until the fire was out, according to a fire official who wrote about the blaze in the training publication called With New York Firefighters, or WNYF.
People who did try to flee were new to the building and unfamiliar with high-rise safety procedures, the official wrote. One woman tried escaping down a stairwell with her 6-month old baby, then got confused as she retreated back toward her apartment and was found sitting on a hallway floor, clutching her child, the publication said.
At the time of the 1986 blaze, the fire official wrote, automatic fire sprinklers in the trash compactor shaft and compactor room had been turned off. A self-closing door to the compactor closet on one floor had been wedged open and the door to a stairway on another floor had been left open to increase air flow.
The “combined effect of bypassing these safety devices contributed to the severity of the subsequent fire,” Deputy Chief James Murtagh wrote in the publication.
The deputy chief blamed “ignorance, carelessness or lack of understanding, with disastrous results.”
At the time, according to the publication, each apartment was equipped with fire-protected, self-closing doors and a smoke detector.
Sunday’s blaze originated in a third-floor apartment, sparked by a faulty space heater that is now the subject of an investigation by federal safety regulators at the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said the apartment’s front door and a door on the 15th floor should have been self-closing and blunted the spread of smoke, but the doors stayed fully open. It was not clear if the doors failed mechanically or if they had been manually disabled.
The deaths over the weekend spread anguish through a mostly immigrant community in the Bronx.
Authorities today released the names of 14 victims, including seven children ranging from 5 to 12 years old. The oldest fatality was a 50-year-old woman, who shared the same last name with three other people.
The medical examiner’s office has begun releasing some of the dead to funeral homes.
At least a dozen of those who perished worshipped at the Masjid-Ur-Rahmah mosque, where imam Musa Kabba has been helping the community grieve.
“Things have been very slow, but we have to be patient,” the imam said.
Jawara’s brother fled to the United States in the 1990s as a refugee during the civil war in his homeland of Sierra Leone. He later married a Gambian woman, whose family had settled in the Bronx.
“Their neighbors on the higher floors never came out and they were safe, so I thought that maybe my brother also was safe in the apartment,” he said.
But when a cellphone belonging to his sister-in-law was found on the street, he knew something was amiss.
Among the dead was the five-member Dukureh family — Haja Dukureh and Haji Dukureh, originally from Gambia, and their three children.
“This is a very close-knit community. We are predominantly from one town in the Gambia called Alunghare, so we are all family,” said Haji Dukureh, the uncle of Haja Dukureh, whose husband had the same name. The surviving uncle drove to the Bronx from his home in Delaware on Monday. “Most of the people here, we are all related in one way or the other.”
Because many people in the building were also members of the same congregation, “it’s like one big family.”
“We just want to have the deceased and place them in their final resting place,” Dukureh said.