A year after a faulty space heater and malfunctioning doors set off one of the deadliest fires in the city's recent history in a Bronx high-rise, killing 17, city and state officials spurred into action to regulate the causes of the deadly blaze. But enforcement still lags and residents say they’re still relying on space heaters to keep warm.
Residents spent months in hotels awaiting renovations or new apartments, and ultimately roughly 80 of the building’s 120 households have since moved away, according to the building’s management.
But for those who have stayed, heat issues are still a constant as they continue to use space heaters to keep warm. And more than 15,000 self-closing door violations throughout the city remain open in the aftermath of the deadly blaze.
Mariama Sankanu, 42, and her five children still deal with a chill in their apartment that forces them to rely on space heaters on the most frigid nights.
“I can’t even sleep in my bedroom,” Sankanu said. “We need to use extra heat.”
Her neighbor Pauline Bryan agrees.
“It’s getting better here,” Bryan, 60, said on Thursday. “Except the heat.”
A community scattered
Sankanu tears up remembering the neighbors lost to the devastating fire.
Her close friend Isatou Jabbie was among the 17 people killed as smoke filled the stairwells, hallways and apartments.
Nearly two-thirds of the tenants, including several of Sankanu’s friends and family members, opted not to return, making new starts elsewhere in the Bronx and fraying a close-knit community that had emerged in the 19-story Twin Parks North West tower. The building had become a hub for West African immigrants and their families.
“I’m so sad, and it’s a big sad,” Sankanu said inside the building lobby on Thursday. “It’s like I’m alone.”
The fire, which also claimed the lives of eight children and an entire family, sparked intense changes for residents, the surrounding community and local lawmakers seeking to address conditions that fueled the flames — namely dangerous space heaters and doors that do not close automatically, in violation of the housing code.
While a host of laws were enacted in response, city enforcement has lagged when it comes to making sure that self-closing door violations are addressed.
A review of city housing code enforcement data shows that 15,040 self-closing door violations since the day of the Twin Parks fire were still marked “open,” as of Thursday. The city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development closed out 20,601 self-closing door violations over that same period, records show.
The number of self-closing door violations has increased from 27,905 in 2019 to 37,917 last year, according to HPD.
Rep. Ritchie Torres said the enforcement gap has left him “outraged.”
“I’ve seen no evidence of a renewed prioritization of fire code enforcement with respect to self closing doors,” said Torres, whose Bronx district includes Twin Parks. “A law is only as good as its enforcement.”
Bronx Councilmember Pierina Sanchez, the housing committee chair, blamed the failure to close out and remedy self-closing door violations on a worsening staff shortage at HPD.
“That translates to tenants making complaints and those complaints not being answered, inspections being delayed, and a feeling on the ground that ‘the city doesn’t care about my plight,’” Sanchez said.
For Twin Parks’ returning residents, neighbors and those who once called the building home, the impact of the disaster can be felt every day.
“It’s quieter since they moved people out,” said Maria Colon, who lives in an apartment building across Tiebout Street. “It’s sadder.”
Bryan and Sankanu, a home health aide, each said they decided to return to the building after spending about six months in hotels. They felt safe in the neighborhood and the apartments were larger than they could find elsewhere, they said.
Sankanu said her family was living on the 18th floor at the time of the fire and managed to survive by gathering in a bedroom and keeping the front door closed. Smoke alarms still trigger panic, she said. And her 5-year-old son cries when she approaches the stairs.
“I don’t want you to die,” she said he tells her. “Don’t go to the stairs.”
Bryan, a nursing home worker, said she decided to return to the building after staying at a Ramada in the South Bronx until July. She happened to be at the emergency room the morning of the fire because she had injured her eye at work the night before and wonders if that saved her life.
“I might have still been sleeping,” she said.
Bryan said she moved back to the apartment she has lived in since 1994 because it was big enough for her grandson and great-grandchildren. She has only just begun unpacking the items she moved into storage.
“Since the fire, I can’t get myself back together,” Bryan said. “It’s very hard. You have an apartment all set up and you have to move stuff into storage and back and hope there is no fire again.”
Army veteran Tony Johnson, 65, said he decided to return to the building because he did not have the energy to find a new place. He said he and other returning residents try to educate their new neighbors about fire safety and take preventative steps to avoid putting anything that could act as tinder in common areas — like cardboard boxes.
“We got a lot of new people moving in,” Johnson said. “We make sure that nothing that can burn is in the compactor room. Anybody with large boxes has to bring them outside.”
Tinkering around the edges
In the wake of the Twin Parks disaster, Torres convened a task force to introduce legislation at the city, state and federal levels to combat future fires. He has sponsored bills to make space heaters safer and to empower the U.S. Fire Administration to investigate and issue public reports about the deadliest fires in the country. He said he also plans to introduce a bill that would withhold Section 8 rent subsidies from landlords who fail to remedy self-closing door violations.
“When money is at stake, you’d be amazed by how much more compliant a landlord becomes,” Torres said.
State and local lawmakers have spent the last year pursuing a spate of new rules around space heaters and self-closing doors, enacting measures that regulate the kind of space heaters that stores can legally sell in New York City.
New city laws codify the definition of a “self-closing door” to indicate that apartment doors must latch shut on their own and order the HPD and FDNY to inspect 300 randomly selected apartment complexes to see if the doors close automatically. The agencies must publish an annual report on the findings by September 2024.
Another measure, which took effect in July of last year, forces property owners to resolve self-closing door violations within 14 days, down from 21, and doubles the daily fine for a failure to correct the problem.
But the new regulations tinker around the edges of a more systemic problem, Sanchez says.
“The root causes of these housing quality challenges that tenants face are poverty and inequality,” Sanchez said. “If this hadn’t been in the Bronx, if this hadn’t been an African and Latino community, if this hadn’t been a low-income community, these 17 neighbors would still be with us today.”
Building fixes and response
Building owner Bronx Park Phase III Preservation LLC — a consortium of investors — said it has spent $4 million in the last year to help tenants relocate, waiving rents and easing the return of 41 households that have moved back in since the fire, said James Yolles, a spokesperson for the owners. The landlords have also offered apartments in other buildings they own.
Yolles said the owners have nearly completed renovations on the third floor, which was destroyed by smoke and fire, and finished upgrades in public hallways and around 65 apartments. They have also additional installed heat sensors that send information to boilers and encourage tenants to report deficiencies, he said. Yolles noted that the building's management has no current tenant complaints over heating issues.
“There is nothing more important than the safety of our residents,” Yolles said. “Over the past year we have worked diligently with our residents, local elected officials and the Bronx community to rebuild and recover from the effects of this tragic accident.”
The city pledged to issue more than $4.5 million in donations through the nonprofit BronxWorks, whose case managers have worked with residents to pay for moving expenses, purchase furniture and cover storage costs during apartment renovations.
BronxWorks directed questions to City Hall, which said that the organization has so far issued $1.65 million in cash assistance to 154 families in the form of $10,000 prepaid debit cards. City officials said they expected to distribute an additional $1.35 million by March.
BronxWorks also spent roughly $1 million on case management, social services and a team of eight staff members. And the city spent about $580,000 in donations plus an additional $175,000 on hotels, meals and funeral expenses, the mayor’s office said.
“I’m proud that our city came together to support those impacted, from the first responders who pulled people from the building to the agencies, nonprofits, and everyday New Yorkers who stepped up to help rebuild and recover,” Mayor Eric Adams told Gothamist in a statement. “As we approach the one-year anniversary of the fire, I’m keeping the victims and their loved ones in my thoughts and want them to know the city will always have their back. "
Building back community
Residents say there’s been an outpouring of support from fellow New Yorkers in the aftermath of the catastrophe.
Local community group Gambian Youth Organization raised more than $1 million for displaced residents and distributed the bulk of the money in $5,000 increments, said the group’s founder and president, Momodou Sawaneh. They have continued issuing additional cash to families that were living off-lease and may not qualify for city assistance, Sawaneh added.
The organization has also tried to foster bonds among residents who have scattered across The Bronx. Twin Parks was a hub for the borough’s Gambian diaspora, with many residents, like Sankanu, moving in immediately after arriving in the U.S.
“We didn’t lose touch. There’s some community still and mostly we know where they went,” Sawaneh said. “What is most important is being able to get at least a home.”
New tenants say they are happy to live in a building they find clean and well maintained.
Melissa Rivera, 42, said she has lived in a unit on the 18th floor since September and has had a good experience, though she sometimes worries about a future fire.
“It was a tragedy what happened especially because there were kids involved,” Rivera said. “The building is good, security is good, but you still see space heaters.”
Tenants who have left say they will never truly shake their former home.
Mark Smith lives more than 30 blocks south now, on the seventh floor of the newly opened La Central, along with several of his old neighbors.
“I see neighbors and it’s kind of heartbreaking because I know they lost their families in that building,” Smith said. “But I try cheering them up.”
Jeannie Torres and her family moved 50 blocks north, to a two-family home off 233rd Street. Torres, 40, stopped by Thursday to pick up her mail and check to see if there would be any kind of remembrance on the tragedy's first anniversary.
She said she had a baby shortly after the fire and wishes he could grow up at Twin Parks, like her two older children.
“My kids were raised in this community,” she said. “We’re all supposed to come back together.”
Contributed reporting by Jake Offenhartz.
This story was updated to include additional comment from the building management.