The number of residential fires in the U.S. decreased by more than half from 1980 to 2018 while their death toll dwindled by a similar rate, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Having two tragic apartment building fires that claimed more than 10 lives each in less than a week is a startling reminder of the ferocity of these incidents even as they become less frequent nationwide.
At least 19 people, nine children among them, were killed in Sunday’s blaze at a 19-story apartment building in the Bronx, New York, four days after 12 people perished in a fire at a three-story rowhouse converted to apartments in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood.
Not since 1982, when 25 people died in the Dorothy Mae Apartment Hotel blaze north of downtown Los Angeles, had the nation experienced as much loss of life in an apartment building fire as took place Sunday in the Bronx. It’s the country’s third-deadliest of its kind in more than four decades.
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“The numbers are horrific,’’ said New York Mayor Eric Adams, who pointed to a malfunctioning space heater as the likely genesis of the tragedy. “This is going to be one of the worst fires that we have witnessed during modern times.’’
At least 63 were injured, several of them taken to area hospitals.
In a 2021 report, the NFPA credits the widespread use of smoke alarms, required by fire and building codes, as the biggest reason home structure fires in the U.S. diminished from 734,000 in 1980 to 363,000 in 2018, and why deaths in those infernos dropped from 5,200 to 2,720 in the same time span. Public education also helped, the report said.
In the case of the Philadelphia blaze, Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy said smoke detectors did not operate. The resulting 12 fatalities matched three other fires — in California on May 3, 1993; in Utah on Dec. 18, 1980; and in New Jersey on Dec. 7, 1978 — for the sixth-biggest death tolls in apartment building fires since 1978, before Sunday.
The five previous deadliest such events, based on NFPA data and other research:
- Sept. 4, 1982: The Dorothy Mae fire was ignited by a Mexican immigrant named Humberto de la Torre, who was trying to spite his uncle, the building’s manager, after they had an argument. De la Torre pleaded guilty to 25 counts of murder and was sentenced to 625 years in prison.
- Jan. 20, 1979: There were 21 fatalities, along 21 injuries, in the deadliest of a series of fires in Hoboken, New Jersey, that were believed to be the result of arson, possibly linked — though not proven — to efforts to clear out tenements and hotels to convert them into more lucrative condos.
- Dec. 24, 1989: At a Johnson City, Tennessee, building with apartments for seniors, 14 of the 16 people who perished in the fire were residents. Fifteen firefighters were injured.
- July 5, 1982: Similar to the Dorothy Mae tragedy, a fire that killed 14 people in a Waterbury, Connecticut, building involved an argument between relatives. In this case, the uncle of a woman who lived in the building set it ablaze. He was sentenced to two life sentences.
- Dec. 28, 2017: A 3-year-old boy playing with a stove set off a fire in a Bronx building that took 13 lives, until Sunday the deadliest in New York City in more than 25 years.
Another notable major inferno, the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, California, on Dec. 2, 2016, does not technically fit the description of a residential fire because it took place in a warehouse converted into an art installation, though some people lived there.
The NFPA says the best way to reduce loss of life and property from home fires is by installing fire sprinklers, noting that they “control 97 percent of the fires in which they operate.’’
That’s a luxury many buildings don’t have.
“There’s no guarantee that there’s a working fire alarm in every apartment, or in every common area,” U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres, a Democrat who represents the area of Sunday’s fire, told The Associated Press. “Most of these buildings have no sprinkler system. And so the housing stock of the Bronx is much more susceptible to devastating fires than most of the housing stock in the city.”