NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Nineteen people were killed, including nine children, in a five-alarm fire at a Bronx apartment building Sunday, FDNY officials said.
More than 60 people were hurt in the blaze at 333 East 181st St. in the Fordham Heights section of the borough. FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said a malfunctioning electric space heater appeared to be the cause. The fire started in an apartment on the second and third floors. While the fire did not spread past the apartment and nearby hallway, the apartment door was left open when people ran out.
"The smoke spread throughout the building, thus the tremendous loss of life and other people fighting for their lives at hospitals throughout the Bronx," Nigro said.
"This is a horrific, horrific painful moment for the city of New York," Mayor Eric Adams added. "The impact of this fire is going to really bring a level of just pain and despair in our city. The numbers are horrific."
"Once you got to the sixth floor, it was pitch black so you couldn't see no more," resident Nikeya Gonzales told CBS2's Kevin Rincon.
She said she waited for firefighters to come knocking, to let her know it was clear for her to leave. That alone was terrifying.
"From my window trying to look out, I see the flames in my next apartment from me. Very scary," Gonzales said.
Up on the ninth floor, Dilenny Rodriguez said she could only listen as neighbors begged.
"There was a lot of kids crying, 'Help! Help! Help!" Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez and her family got out unharmed, but she said she knows the same can't be said for everyone, and that weighs heavy on her.
"I can't describe that. I can't," Rodriguez said.
A few floors down, Gwen Best could only sit and wait for help.
"When I looked through the peep hole you couldn't see nothing, to the point the smoke was so heavy it knocked out the alarm. There was no more beeping," Best said.
She made it out with her pet cat and said she feels lucky to have gotten out alive.
"The smoke was coming in through the door, so I put the towels around and I said I wasn't going anywhere until the knock on the door," Best said.
Hours after the fire was put out, CBS2 could still see first responders hard at work.
Adams said the tragedy is being felt by "the men and women that live here, not only in the Bronx, but throughout this city. This is going to be one of the worst fires that we have witnessed during modern times here in the city of New York."
"The last time we had a loss of life that was maybe this horrific was the Happy Land fire, which was over 30 years ago, also here in the Bronx," Nigro said.
According to officials, 200 firefighters responded after the fire started on the second or third floor at around 11 a.m. Some ran out of oxygen in their tanks as they tried to make it to the 19th floor. Thirty-two people were transported to five hospitals, with the majority of the victims suffering from severe smoke inhalation, Nigro said.
"This smoke extended the entire height of the building, completely unusual," Nigro said. "Members found victims on every floor in stairwells and were taking them out in cardiac and respiratory arrest."
The fire commissioner said this type of fire can be traumatizing for firefighters, adding some looked anguished during their response Sunday.
"We're all about saving lives, and the loss of one life is sad for us, much less 19 lives," Nigro said.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, who attended a Sunday evening press conference with Adams and Sen. Chuck Schumer, said, "We are indeed a city in shock. It's impossible to go into that room, where scores of families, who are in such grief, who are in pain, to see in a mother's eyes as I held her, who lost her entire family ... it's hard to fathom what they are going through."
"We will not forget you. We will not abandon you. We are here for you," Hochul added.
She said she will be establishing a victim's compensation fund to help the people impacted by the fire.
"This was a large Muslim population," Adams said. "Many of the residents... came from Gambia. And we want to make sure that we are sensitive to their cultural needs. The [Medical Examiner]'s office is going to coordinate to make sure that we respect the burial rites of the Muslim community, as well as others."
"This is a heavy immigrant community," Adams added. "If you need assistance, your names will not be turned over to ICE, or any other institution. We want people to be comfortable in coming forward, and it's imperative that we connect with those on the ground to make sure they get that message and that word out."
Schumer added, "At the federal level we will do whatever we can," to help the victims.
"We are going to do everything we can to bring services on the ground here, to give the people the assistance that they need, as we all recover from the trauma that we are witnessing here in the buildings behind us," Adams added.
CBS2's Kevin Rincon contributed to this report.
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