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The Bronx Fire: A Tragedy, But Not An Accident

By Ericka S. Familia, Crimson Opinion Writer
Ericka S. Familia ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Greenough Hall.

Amid a fairly uneventful winter break back home, with the local news almost exclusively reporting on Omicron surges in New York City, my neighborhood was suddenly burning. On the morning of Jan. 9, I watched footage from NBC News in disbelief, terrified at the sight of a building only a mile away from my apartment engulfed in flames. I could not look away from the screen as children were pulled out on stretchers and people desperately gasped for air, their faces covered in soot. The fire, which originated from a space heater and produced lethal smoke that quickly spread due to open doors, killed at least 17 people and left 32 with life-threatening injuries.

What makes this fire particularly tragic — beyond its basic nature — is that it was clearly preventable. When considering both the cause of the fire and the reason it became so deadly, it is evident that hiding behind the headline of a devastating accident lies a larger story of negligence and disregard for human life.

The findings of the investigation into potential building violations have yet to be released; however, an investigation is hardly needed to deduce that had the building’s residents been provided with sufficient heating, they would not have needed to rely on a space heater to remain warm. Further, the Commissioner of the New York City Fire Department confirmed that although the fire itself did not expand beyond a single apartment, fatal fumes spread quickly because two doors leading to a hallway and a stairwell did not close, preventing residents from safely evacuating. As New York State law requires self-closing doors in buildings with three or more apartments, the malfunctioning of the self-closing mechanisms of multiple doors during the fire suggests further irresponsibility on the part of the landlords. Tenants also reported that the fire alarms frequently went off in the building, leading residents to instinctively ignore them.

Putting all of these factors together, the sickening reality is that 17 people, including eight children, lost their lives because their landlords were not sufficiently concerned with ensuring their survival. The building owners did not provide residents whose rent payments they presumably collected every month with basic necessities like adequate heating in the middle of January in New York City, reliable self-closing doors, and properly functioning fire alarms. By failing to act proactively, the landlords — who held the power to remedy all of the underlying causes of the fire — actively placed the lives of already vulnerable people at risk.

Witnessing the fire during my first long break home from college was striking. The image of the murderous blaze was a potent reminder that although I am shielded by the immense privilege of attending Harvard, this privilege does not extend to the place I call home. When I leave Greenough’s hardwood floors and the colorful study cubicles of Cabot Library, I return to a community where children die in their own homes because preserving human life is not at the top of landlords’ priority lists.

This fire was not an isolated incident. There is a long history of Bronx residents — who are overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic — losing their homes and lives to fires. During the 1970s, fires decimated 97 percent of the buildings in seven Bronx districts, and the four deadliest fires in New York City since 1990 have all occurred in the Bronx. It is not a coincidence that within the wealthiest city in the world, the borough in which fires rage most often houses the five poorest city council districts and the poorest congressional district in the nation. The Bronx has been burning for decades with no end in sight, revealing the minimal value with which Bronx lives are held.

Survivors of the fire filed a lawsuit against the owners of the building seeking up to $3 billion in relief for the tenants. While my hope is for the Court to rule in their favor, the truth is that no sum of money can fill the void of the 17 human beings whose lives were abruptly cut short on a Sunday morning or heal the trauma of all of the people who struggled to breathe as they evacuated their homes. I question if the lawsuit — no matter the outcome — will ultimately make a difference for my community. As long as we live in a world where wealth and power dictate the value of people’s lives, it is difficult to predict an end to tragedies such as these.

In the wake of the fire, I am afforded a degree of solace by the unity and resilience that characterize the people of the Bronx. Without hesitation, community members stepped in to help by donating essential items, providing meals, and raising over $1.5 million to assist the victims in their recovery. Amidst all of the sorrow and tragedy that is, unfortunately, far from uncommon in the Bronx, we show up for our neighbors, consistently proving that our community cannot be torn down.

As I return to Cambridge for my second semester at Harvard, my heart a little heavier than when I left, I can say that this tragedy has reinforced my purpose for waking up every day: striving toward a future in which the Bronx ceases to burn.

Ericka S. Familia ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Greenough Hall.

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