Bronx (United States) (AFP) – There are barely any traces of fire on the apartment building’s facade, no puddles of water on the ground, and only a handful of onlookers.
The scene of New York’s deadliest fire in decades — 12 are dead — seems frozen by the frigid temperatures, which dropped to 14 degrees Fahrenheit (-10 degrees Celsius).
On Friday, only two fire trucks, their lights still flashing, hinted at the drama that had unfolded the evening before in the Bronx.
On the sidewalk, water blasted out by fire hoses encased the branches of a tree in ice — a reminder of the Christmas decorations adorning 187th Street a few yards (meters) away, which are at odds with the tragic blaze.
In this neighborhood, historically Italian but now multicultural, just a few people came to look at the building, which remains behind yellow security tape whipped by a frigid wind.
Two men come and go from the corner grocery. They are in their 20s, their shoulders covered with a blanket from the Red Cross.
With a faraway look in their eyes, they decline to answer questions from reporters.
Rafik Al-Jabali, 47, a neighbor who operates one of three grocery stores on the nearest corner, saw the tragedy quickly unfold.
“It happened like this,” he says, snapping his fingers.
Jabali lives in the building right across the street from the doomed apartment block. He says he was in bed when the fire started.
By the time he got to the window, firefighters had already begun working. Thick, dark smoke poured out of several windows.
Moments later, he saw a woman taken out on a stretcher.
“She was already dead,” Jabali said, lowering his eyes.
– Haunted by the images –
Joel Rodriguez, 40, lives on the ground floor of the building and was able to escape rather easily, even though smoke had turned the corridors “pitch black.”
He saw several of his neighbors, brought out — naked or largely exposed, deprived of their dignity — on stretchers. Some of them were burned.
“It was very tough,” Rodriguez says.
“I still have the images in my mind. I can’t erase them,” he adds, his eyes masked by dark glasses.
The city’s fire chief said Friday that a three-year-old boy playing with stove burners apparently accidentally ignited the fire. The victims included three small girls and an unidentified boy.
Rodriguez says the building was home to “happy people” who brought out their barbecues in summer, noting: “Everybody has fun. We all get along. There’s no dispute or nothing.”
A visibly fatigued Rodriguez says he slept a little in his car, between visits to the hospital where his wife is being treated for smoke inhalation.
He has a hard time seeing himself return to live in the building of light-colored bricks that was built in the early 20th century and which has become a tomb.
“Today, I wouldn’t want to come back. It’s a memorial site right now,” Rodriguez says.
– ‘Today, they have nothing’ –
Behind him, Kenneth Cruiz arrives with a cart full of clothes that he had saved for victims of this year’s hurricanes in Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida, but never had the chance to give away.
“This morning, my wife added three more jackets and I came over,” he says, marching towards a school where most of the fire survivors are staying.
A police officer says nobody is there, even if at least seven of his colleagues are stationed in the entrance, and dozens of officials come and go.
He lets Cruiz leave the clothes.
“My good deed,” Cruiz says.
“I’m sure a few hours ago, these people had everything, Christmas presents and everything. Today, they have nothing.”