Rancid black smoke filling hallways, rising from floor to floor. People tripping and falling as they rushed down darkened stairwells, unable to see. Panic turning to sorrow, as residents who escaped a fire at a high-rise Bronx apartment building learned of neighbors who did not survive.
“We all got out. My friend, her husband didn’t make it out. So I’m just thanking God that my family made it,” said one resident, Winter Thomas, who escaped from the ninth floor with her mother, stepfather and siblings.
In all, Sunday’s fire killed 17 people, including eight children.
“It don’t make no sense. These is kids I grew up with, kids we went to school with,” Thomas said.
On the way down, they sidestepped unresponsive bodies laying on the ground.
Sandra Clayton, 61, heard neighbors screaming in the hallway: “Get out! Get out!”
She dashed for the stairs, scooping up her dog named Mocha, a 2-year-old Maltese Shih Tzu.
The smoke smelled of putrid chemicals, she said. It was already thick and black when she found the stairwell.
She fumbled with her cellphone flashlight, but was too much in shock. Unable to see, she groped her way down the stairs, soon crowded with other tenants. She described panicked wails and crying that echoed up and down the stairs.
“I just ran down the steps as much as I could but people [were] falling all over me, screaming,” she recounted from St. Barnabas Hospital, where she was treated for smoke inhalation.
She fell three times, sometimes trampled by others trying to escape in the darkness.
At one point, she let go of her dog as she braced herself from a fall.
“I tried feeling for her, but there was so much smoke,” she said, her voice growing emotional. “I had to save my own life.”
After minutes that seemed to last forever, she found her way out of the building. She gasped for air, wondering in tears about what happened to Mocha back on the stairs.
“It was so horrific,” she said of the ordeal. “I was so scared.”
Mocha didn’t make it. The dog was later found suffocated by the smoke, she said.
As evening fell over the scene, Nicole Anderson counted her blessings. She suspects the fire was already burning when she and her family rode down the elevator to their car.
After driving just a few minutes, the family saw firetrucks barreling down the street, sirens and lights blaring.
“I didn’t think much of it,” said Anderson, 43, who grew up in the building. Soon a neighbor was calling saying their building was on fire. She turned back but could only get as close as a few blocks from her home. She walked the rest of the way.
“It was dark black smoke,” she said, coming from a lower floor.
Jose Henriquez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, was taking care of two young grandkids and a niece with his wife. At first, he thought the fire alarm was just an irritating interruption to their morning, since he said false alarms in the building were frequent.
Henriquez said those previous false alarms might've caused residents not to take action as soon as the fire broke out.
As the dark smoke filled the hallway outside, Henriquez shut the door tight and wedged a wet towel in the gap below.
He cracked open a window, letting in the wintry air. In video he shot, the kids can be heard expressing alarm at the smoke, looking out the 10th-floor window as fire trucks rushed to the scene.
Eventually, the family squeezed past ascending firefighters, using dampened COVID-19 masks for protection against the lingering smoke, careful not to slip in pools of water.
On the way down, they passed a dog lying dead on the sooty staircase.
Luis Rosa, also on the 13th floor, had awakened to the fire alarm, also annoyed that it was probably another false alarm.
But when a notification popped up on his phone, he and his mother began to worry.
By then, smoke began wafting into his 13th floor apartment. Sirens began wailing in the distance.
He opened the front door, but smoke had gotten too thick for an escape, he said.
“OK, we can’t run down the stairs because if we run down the stairs, we’re going to end up suffocating,” he recalled.
He looked out the window trying to figure out his options.
“All we could do was wait,” he said.
About 45 minutes later — perhaps longer, he said — he heard pounding on the door. It was a firefighter giving the all clear.