All 17 victims of Bronx apartment fire died of smoke inhalation, NYC medical examiner rules

Officials are looking for long-term solutions to ensure a similar tragedy never happens again, and pictured here, an apartment building which suffered the city's deadliest fire in three decades is seen in the Bronx borough of New York, on January 10.

By Kelly McCleary, Amir Vera and Liam Reilly, CNN

(CNN) -- All 17 victims from a fire in a Bronx apartment building on Sunday died of smoke inhalation, according to the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME).

The manner of death was determined to be an accident for them all, said OCME Director of Public Affairs Julie Bolcer.

The determination comes after an electric space heater sparked a fire in a duplex unit, flooding the 19-story apartment building with smoke. Fire officials said that the smoke was able to spread because the door of that apartment and the door from the stairwell to the 15th floor were left open, even though the doors were supposed to close automatically.

Some residents of the building who survived the fire can return to the top floor apartments, the New York City Emergency Management (NYCEM) told CNN on Tuesday.

"Some residents are now able to relocate apartments on the top floors," said spokeswoman Ines Bebea. "The process is ongoing and evolving."

The agency was unable to provide a timeline for when or how many people will reenter the building, as the building's management is notifying residents individually and are "not rushing people back into their apartments," Bebea said.

New York City Department of Buildings records show that the building is listed with a Partial Vacate Order on Tuesday after a structural stability inspection was conducted on Monday.

The return of some residents comes as officials are looking for long-term solutions to ensure a similar tragedy never happens again.

"The two values that matter most to all of us are our family and our homes, and to lose both in the span of a single tragedy is terrifying and traumatic to an extent that few of us can imagine," Rep. Ritchie Torres, who represents the area where the fire took place, told CNN on Monday.

Eight children were among the 17 who died in the Sunday fire. A CNN review of local hospitals shows that at least eight patients are still hospitalized in relation to the fire, while at least 25 people have been treated and released.

Issues with smoke alarms and doors

The building's doors and reports of malfunctioning smoke alarms are a focus of the investigation, Nigro said.

Building conditions will also be a topic for a new task force of federal, state and local leaders who say they're focused on policies and potential legislation that can prevent further tragedies.

Torres announced the task force Monday alongside Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson and local city council members Oswald Feliz and Pierina Sanchez.

"There are underlying issues that we are facing every day with fire alarms and sprinkler systems and exits, and heat and hot water, and basic necessities that every resident and tenant of New York City should be afforded," Gibson said.

The focus on legislation is one part of a four-prong plan by leaders, which also includes ensuring permanent housing for those whose units were destroyed, that those displaced can return to their units as soon as possible and providing any services needed for those affected.

In addition to looking into the enforcement of New York's laws requiring self-closing doors, Torres said the group would also explore whether current minimum heating requirements are sufficient. The Bronx building's heating appeared to be working, Torres said, but residents still felt the need to use space heaters to keep warm.

Built in 1972, the building was federally funded, so may have been built outside the New York City fire code, Nigro said Sunday, adding it was unlikely to have been a factor in the fire.

At a news conference Monday, New York firefighter union representatives confirmed the building was not required to adhere to city fire codes.

"We have to clarify in federal law that federal developments, federally regulated and subsidized developments, should be subject to local fire codes and housing codes and building codes. That every American have access to safe and affordable housing, including housing that's safe from fires," Torres told CNN's Jim Sciutto.

Survivors describe battling thick smoke

Residents of the 120-unit building have said the fire alarms in the building often malfunctioned, so when they sounded Sunday morning, Daisy Mitchell told CNN she "didn't pay it no mind."

But then Mitchell's husband began to smell smoke in their 10th-floor unit and they encountered thick smoke when they went to investigate.

"I went to the stairs, I opened the door, it just blew me back [to] the house," she added. "If I'd stayed out there for another three seconds, I would have been gone too."

Karen Dejesus lives on the same floor as the apartment that caught fire and said the flames encroached on her residence.

"I can see the flames, I can see the smoke and everything, you know, coming into my apartment," Dejesus said.

Dejesus said firefighters broke down her door to rescue her, her granddaughter and her son. They had to climb out of a window to escape the flames.

She, too, noted fire alarms in the building often went off.

"So many of us were used to hearing that fire alarm go off so it was like second nature to us," she said. "Not until I actually seen the smoke coming in the door, I realized it was a real fire and I heard people yelling help, help, help."

Mamadou Wague said he was jolted awake Sunday morning by the sound of his children yelling, "Fire! Fire!"

Wague lives on the third floor of the building with his eight kids, who range in age from 6 months to 18 years old.

His family wasn't able to flee the building because there was too much smoke, he said. Terrified, they waited in a neighbor's apartment, putting wet towels under the doors, until firefighters arrived 15 to 30 minutes later to escort them down the stairs.

Wague, an Uber driver who immigrated to the US from Mali in 2000, said the fire burned all his family's belongings.

"Everything is gone in my apartment," he said. "Everything is gone."

The Red Cross has provided emergency housing to 22 families, representing 56 adults and 25 children, the group said in a statement.

'Worried and devastated'

Authorities haven't released the names of those who died but people who haven't yet heard from their loved ones are fearing the worst.

Yusupha Jawara told CNN he's been trying to reach his brother and sister-in-law since he learned of the fire, but they aren't answering their phones.

"I'm totally worried and devastated -- not me alone, but the whole community and the family at large. Everybody's worried. We don't know what happened. ... That's the toughest thing -- not knowing," Jawara told CNN.

Nfamar Kebe said at least one of his relatives died in the fire and his nephew's 2-year-old son is hospitalized, fighting for his life.

But Kebe, who came to the US from Guinea 35 years ago, said the building and the community is home to many West African immigrants who have become part of his extended family.

"We are one community," he says. "When we meet here, we are the same family."

Many of those in the building were Muslim immigrants from the West African nation of The Gambia. The country's ambassador told CNN the building had been a beloved home for many such immigrants over the years.

"I think a lot of Gambians who came here, they stayed there before they moved anywhere else," said Ambassador Dawda Docka Fadera. This was kind of a first port of call, this building. It's a building Gambians have a lot of attachment to."

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