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Immigrant victims of deadly NYC fire
This tragedy didn't have to happen

By Jake Kornegay | March 16, 2007 | Page 2

A FIRE that swept through an overcrowded building in New York City last week killed 10 people from two African immigrant families--nine of them children, ranging in ages from 7 months to 11 years old.

Thirteen other relatives were injured, suffering burns or broken bones from jumping out windows--and a number of firefighters were hurt. The fire was the deadliest in New York in close to two decades--since the blaze at the Happy Land nightclub in 1990 that killed 87 people.

The building--in the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx, a center for immigrants from Mali--is nothing but a smoldering shell now, as New Yorkers come from all over the city to pay their respects, and consider whether such an awful tragedy could also happen to them.

All of the unsafe conditions that contributed to the disaster--the all-wooden stairs leading up a flue-like hallway to the top floor, the lack of sprinklers and fire escapes--are legal under New York City building codes. And the city's affordable housing crisis, which led the 22 Malian immigrants to jam into the building, guaranteed a higher death toll.

A faulty space heater cord is being blamed for starting the fire. But tens of thousands of New Yorkers turn to space heaters as a last resort each year when the temperature drops in their apartments due to inadequate heat. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, space heaters cause over 25,000 fires and 300 deaths across the country each year.

What you can do

Donations for the families can be sent to: Magassa-Soumare Family Foundation, c/o Islamic Cultural Center, 371 E. 166th St., Bronx, NY 10456.


And what was the response of New York City's billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg? Distribute batteries. "It's impossible to say whether this would have saved lives, but smoke detectors really are the best defense that we have against fires, and not using them is a risk that none of us can afford to take," Bloomberg said.

But there are much better "defenses" against these tragedies--if only Bloomberg and city officials would spend the money.

The Department of Buildings said a work permit for the building, stalled on technicalities, would have allowed renovations, including a new sprinkler system, fireproof metal stairs and a fire escape. Meanwhile, more than $400 million of taxpayer money that could be used for safe, affordable housing is going instead to help build a new Yankee Stadium, just blocks away from the site of the Bronx fire.

The crisis of affordable housing highlights the holes in the U.S. economy for the nation's poor.

In the past year, the number of homeless families in New York City increased by 17.6 percent to an all-time high in February 2007, with the Department of Homeless Services reporting a monthly average of 9,287 families in the city's shelters. "This is unfortunately a pretty straightforward story," said Brad Lander, Director of the Pratt Center for Community Development. "Housing costs continue to skyrocket while wages on the low-end can't even begin to catch up."

Under the city's housing program for the poor, 40 percent of all families receiving housing placement in the Bronx were placed in buildings with more than two hazardous violations per apartment--including lead paint, broken windows, collapsed ceilings and floors, non-working appliances and fixtures, as well as a lack of heat, hot water and electricity. New York City law defines each of these violations as "immediately hazardous" to the health and safety of tenants living in the apartment.

Under these circumstances, it is inevitable that poor families would crowd into any available housing, no matter how dangerous the conditions. Plywood or sheets are commonly used as room dividers in rooming houses, and people living in closets, under stairwells or in attics is increasingly common, according to Westbury, N.Y., Fire Chief Joseph Pascarella.

Local residents, mosques, a nearby school and people from far and wide have shown their solidarity with the victims of the Bronx fire, raising money and gathering goods for the families--everything from blankets and food, to toys and stuffed animals for the surviving children.

We should demand that the politicians show the same concern--and do something about the causes of terrible tragedies like this one.