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NEW YORK: Members of the Muslim American community in New York’s Bronx neighborhood, where many Muslim Americans died in an apartment building fire on January 9, rallied to help residents with a support and donations.
At least 17 Muslim Americans of West African descent died in the fire. Eight of the victims were under the age of 18. Their Islamic funeral will take place on January 16 at the Islamic Cultural Center in the Bronx.
“The smoke alarms went off but nobody really took it seriously because they go off all the time so nobody knows when it’s a real emergency,” said 14-year-old Bintou Kamara. at Arab News.
Kamara, who studies at Harlem Prep High School, has lived in the building, 333 East 181st Street, with her family since she was young.
Kamara and her family initially thought the fire was coming from an adjacent building, until they started to hear cries for help and sirens.
“We heard people screaming for help. We had seen firefighters, so we realized this was our house,” Kamara said.
“We took a scarf and we were waving outside shouting ‘help, help’. It took them about an hour or two to get to us. We were on the 12th floor.
Firefighters said a faulty electric heater started the blaze.
“The heating is sometimes on, sometimes off. That’s why everyone in this building has a heater. Everyone in this building has a heater,” Kamara told Arab News.
“People don’t want to freeze. It’s winter. It is cold. I have a heater in my room. My mother has a radiator. Everyone has a radiator. If the building was just providing heat, none of this would have happened – if they were just doing what they were supposed to.
According to the New York fire department, the flames themselves did not spread throughout the building. Instead, thick black smoke engulfed the stairs and seeped into the apartments, blocking the only emergency exit and causing several deaths and hospitalizations.
Fire marshal Daniel Nigro told local media that an apparent malfunction of the doors in front of the building and on the 15th floor caused smoke to spread rapidly throughout the building.
Nigro said the front door to the apartment and a door on the 15th floor should have closed automatically and mitigated the spread of smoke, but the doors remained fully open. It was unclear whether the doors had failed mechanically or had been manually disabled.
But malfunctions in the building are not uncommon, residents told Arab News. Fatoumatta Kamara, Bintou’s older sister, said that among the problems they faced were leaky sinks, peeling paint and pests.
“Usually when you say something to the owner, either it’s not fixed properly, or it damages quickly, or it doesn’t come for a while, so you have to keep repeatedly filing the same complaint about some issue. household,” Fatoumatta, a 19-year-old student at Fordham University, said. Eventually, after growing tired of long waits, the family would do the repairs themselves, she said.
Nearly a week after the fire, many families are still living in a hotel or with other family members, with little communication with the building owner. Attorneys for the victims’ families have filed a class action lawsuit seeking $1 billion in compensation from building owners, city and state officials.
Despite several problems in the apartment where the fire occurred, Bintou and Fatoumatta expressed their affection for the community they had built over the years.
The 120-unit building is occupied by mostly low-income communities of diverse backgrounds, some of whom are Muslim immigrants of West African descent. The building is within a 15-mile radius of several mosques which began mobilizing immediately to help residents of the building.
Just outside Masjid ar-Rahman, a nearby mosque, several cars double-parked late Thursday night. Inside, several volunteers huddled around hundreds of donated items, sorting them into different bags: toiletries, snacks, men’s shoes and women’s shoes, men’s shirts and women’s shirts, baby clothes, boys’ clothes and girls’ clothes.
“After sorting them out, we either have family members of people who live in the building pick up new items immediately, or we send some to hotels as well,” said Jenabu Simaha, 24.
Masjid al-Taqwa, another mosque in the area, collected cash donations for the families and Masjid al-Fawzaan also assigned a drop-off location for the donations. Many items are brand new.
“What gave us a lot of comfort was the community,” Simaha said. “Not only the Muslim community, but also the Bronx community. We have had so many different volunteers and community members in this area come out to support us.