A child playing with a stove caused New York’s deadliest fire in almost 30 years, leaving 12 people dead including one baby.
The three-year-old child survived when his mother swept him away from the rising smoke in the kitchen and out into safety with his younger sibling.
The fire quickly spread up the block, with the stairway acting “like a chimney”, according to investigators, killing 12 people, aged one to 50.
The one-year-old girl died along with her mother as they tried to shelter in a bathtub, investigators said. Two young girls aged two and seven, and a boy whose age was not known, were also among the dead.
“People had very little time to react,” Daniel Nigro, the city’s fire department commissioner, said. “They couldn’t get back down the stairs. Those that tried perished.”
The fire broke out at 7pm on Thursday in a building with 26 flats near the Bronx Zoo, a popular tourist attraction. Firefighters were on the scene within three minutes but the blaze spread rapidly fueled by strong winds.
More than 160 firefighters took three hours to control the blaze as water leaking from hoses froze on the pavement due to extreme cold.
The building, made of plaster and brick, was erected in 1916 and had six open safety violations including for a defective smoke detector on the first floor, the New York Times reported.
It was not clear if the smoke detector had been fixed or replaced, or whether it had played any role in the fire.
The blaze was the most deadly in a block of flats in the city since 1990. Bill de Blasio, the New York City Mayor, called it an “unspeakable tragedy”.
He said: “What we think at this point is that unfortunately it emanated from an accident, a young child playing with a stove on the first floor of the building.
“Here in the Bronx there are families that have been torn apart. This is the worst fire tragedy we have seen in this city in at least a quarter century.
“The building owner, the building manager, is supposed to make sure that all those basic safety precautions are in place.”
Kimberly Wilkins, an eyewitness, said: “People were screaming and that’s how we knew there was trouble. People were screaming, ‘Fire! Help! Fire! Help!”
The building was in a section of the Bronx where half the residents earn less than the US poverty threshold.