Residents describe what they did to survive the deadly Bronx high rise fire

The deadliest fire in decades in the Bronx killed at least 19 and displaced dozens of residents on east 181st Street
TREMONT, The Bronx (WABC) -- The victims of the tragic deadly fire in the Bronx were remembered with a prayer vigil at the scene Monday morning, as residents continue to assess the damage to their building.

Windows were broken on almost every floor of the high rise after the deadly fire tore through the building.

The smoke extended to every floor of the building on 333 East 181st Street in the Tremont section, and there were residents who needed help on every single floor. Many victims were found overcome in the stairwells.

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Cleaning crews entered the building Monday morning in order to clean up all the water and smoke damage, and those who lived there came to see the devastation.

"When I tried to get out, that's when I saw the smoke," resident Nolia Arzu said. "It was thick, blistering. I closed the door again. I stayed there calling for the help from my window."

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City officials say some of the victims have still not been identified.

"My cousin, I heard that his three children passed away," relative Mohamed Kamara said. "I don't know where my cousin and his wife is. I'm trying to go to the hospital to look for them."

The fire was five alarms, but because of the massive response, many of the firefighters were not needed to battle the flames but to rescue everyone they could.

"We have families that have multiple children that they lost," Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson said. "One family lost her oldest, and we're trying to locate her other four children."

Unfortunately, some residents say that the smoke alarms routinely went off in the building, so people ignored them most of the time.

One person said he heard it, but by the time he opened the door, the hallway had filled with smoke.

The 120 unit building does not have fire escapes, so residents' only way out was through the stairwells that became death traps.

"It was pitch black, you couldn't see anything," one resident said. "Basically, there was no guidance. You didn't know where you were going, where you were going to end up, what happened. It was very bad, it was traumatizing."

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People had to decide whether to keep their doors closed and wait for firefighters or try and brave the smoke.

"When I went to go open the door, I had to shut it back," another resident said. "It was too late to go knock on somebody's door. It was too late. The smoke was already in the hallway of the seventh floor."

Aesha McKenzie made it out of a ninth-floor apartment through the black smoke. She couldn't see, but she could hear the panic of family members looking for their loved ones.

"It's too much," she said. 'Oh lord, it's too much."

Residents who have been displaced by Sunday's fire can text 181STFIRE to 692692 for resources.

Dozens of residents had to be carried out on stretchers, overcome by the smoke, some in cardiac arrest.

"It was a lot of smoke, so we had to stop at the sixth floor and we were able to get into a neighbor's home," a resident named Fatima said. "We stayed there until the firefighters came, and they were able to guide us out. Traumatizing."

Residents who walked out say they could not have done it without the firefighters.

"My teeth broke because I could not see where I'm going," resident Stephant Beuvsnu said. "So where put the garbage down, that's the place, I opened, I thought that's the door, so when I went, I got hit, I fell back."

Julia Fowler was on the ninth floor with her 9-year-old son and had to make a life or death decision -- try to escape through the suffocating smoke in the stairwell or wait until the firefighters arrived.

"I knew the best thing to do was stay," Fowler said.

However, from her window, she could see the horror unfolding below.

"A lot of people were coming out on stretchers, real sad situation," she said.
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One seventh-floor resident grabbed her cat, named Fancy, and made a harrowing journey through a smoke-filled stairwell.

"Dark," she said. "Dark and grim, so all we had was the fireman's flashlights, and my son had his flashlight from his phone. Slippery, had to really take your time."

Residents were able to get food and shelter in the school next to the building, figure out what to do next, and try to account for everyone as they await word that it is safe to go into their smoke-damaged homes.

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