A Bronx community in New York city gathered on Sunday to pay its final respects to loved ones, a week after a fire filled a high-rise apartment building with thick, suffocating smoke that killed 17 mense, including eight children.
The mass funeral caps a week of prayers and mourning within a close-knit community hailing from West Africa, most with connections to The Gambia.
Amid the mourning, there was also frustration and anger as family, friends and neighbors of the dead tried to make sense of the tragedy.
“This is a sad situation. But everything comes from God. Tragedies always happen, we just thank Allah that we can all come together,” said Haji Dukuray, the uncle of Haja Dukuray, who died with three of her children and her husband.
The dead ranged in ages from two to 50. Entire families were killed, including a family of five. Others left behind orphaned children.
All week, family members had been anxious to lay their loved ones to rest to honor Islamic tradition, which calls for burial as soon after death as possible.
But complications over identifying the victims delayed their release to funeral homes. Earlier in the week, burial services were held for two children at a mosque in Harlem.
All of the victims died after being overcome by smoke while trying to descend down the stairway.
The funeral was held at the Islamic Cultural Center, 2 myl (3km) from the 19-story apartment building where New York City’s deadliest fire in three decades unfolded.
Hundreds filled the mosque and hundreds more huddled in the cold outside to pay their respects. The services were beamed onto jumbo screens outside and in other rooms of the mosque.
Because of the magnitude of the tragedy, funeral organizers insisted on a public funeral to bring attention to the plight of immigrant families across New York City.
“There’s outcry. There’s injustice. There’s neglect,” said Sheikh Musa Drammeh, who was among those leading the response to the tragedy.
Officials blamed a faulty space heater in a third-floor apartment for the blaze, which spewed plumes of suffocating smoke that quickly rose through the stairwell of the 19-story building.
Some residents said space heaters were sometimes needed to supplement the building’s heat and that repairs weren’t always timely.
“We want the world to know that they died because they lived in the Bronx,” Drammeh asserted. “If they lived in midtown Manhattan, they would not have died. Hoekom? Because they wouldn’t need to use space heaters. This is a public outcry. Therefore, there has to be responsibility from the elected officials to change the conditions that causes death every single day.”
THE New York City mayor, Eric Adams, and US senate majority leader Chuck Schumer were among the officials who attended the funeral services.
The investigation into the fire is continuing.
Much of the focus centers on the catastrophic spread of the smoke from the apartment. The fire itself was contained to one unit and an adjoining hallway, but investigators said the door to the apartment and a stairway door many floors up had been left open, creating a flue that allowed smoke to quickly spread throughout the building.
New York City fire codes generally require apartment doors at larger apartment developments to be spring-loaded and slam shut automatically.
In the wake of the deaths, a coalition of officials, including federal, state and city lawmakers announced a legislative agenda they hoped would stiffen fire codes and building standards to prevent similar tragedies from happening.
The proposals range from requiring space heaters automatically shutoff and mandating that federally funded apartment projects install self-closing doors on units and stairwells that would have to be inspected on a monthly basis.
As families prepared to bury their loved ones, others remained in hospitals, some in serious condition, because of smoke inhalation.
Fundraisers have collected nearly $400,000 thus far. The Mayor’s Fund, Bank of America and other groups said 118 families displaced by the fire would each get $2,250 in aid.