On the freezing Sunday morning of Jan. 9, 2022, fire swept through the third floor of Twin Parks North West, a 19-story public housing complex in the Fordham Heights neighborhood of the Central Bronx. Panicked screams pierced the air as residents tried to escape through the thick black smoke that eventually filled the building. Accounts of that day from survivors described how some jumped over bodies, while others waited for fire rescue teams, who carried them to safety.
Residents who managed to escape went next door to the Angelo Patri Middle School where the Red Cross had set up an emergency relief site. As sirens from ambulances and firetrucks wailed, rescue services counted the losses. Seventeen people had died, including nine children. It was the deadliest fire in the Bronx in three decades.
In the aftermath, many have grappled with what could have gone so wrong as to cause a tragedy of that magnitude. The New York City Fire Department cited a malfunctioning electric heater as the direct cause of the fire. But stories from tenants of Twin Parks suggest that longtime lack of attention to fire hazards and negligence from the building’s management created a series of problems that directly and indirectly led to the fire that morning. They say oversights, including poor heating systems and ignoring the legal requirement to have functioning self-closing doors, were part of a broader pattern of neglect that went beyond fire safety. If that pattern had been addressed, perhaps the fire could have been prevented.
Twin Parks residents say they had filed many complaints with the landlords over the years about issues like rodent infestation, leaks and mold, and broken radiators. Throughout the winter, tenants complained about freezing apartments and dank hallways. Families resorted to buying space heaters when outside temperatures dropped to as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Complaints filed by tenants just a month before the fire, in December 2021 included lack of heat and self-closing doors that did not work. These complaints had been marked as resolved by the City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).
“Everybody had heaters. That’s just how it was because it got so cold,” says New York City Parks employee Nikki Campbell, 45, who lost her apartment on the third floor. Campbell had lived in Twin Parks for 16 years and was familiar with the many issues the building had. She described an incident one year when her front door wouldn’t lock. Campbell said she called management for repair, and they sent someone to fix it, but whatever they did didn’t last—by the next night, the door wouldn’t lock properly again. Proper repairs were only done once a year, timed conveniently close to Section 8 inspections by HPD. After inspections, building management would revert to slow responses or no repairs. Despite these mounting issues, Campbell says, she did not expect an accident of such magnitude.
This was not the first such tragedy in the Bronx. In the 1970s, the phrase “the Bronx is burning” was coined because of an increase in fires in low-income buildings that Black and Hispanic communities had settled in. Many of these fires were arson-for-profit, but many others were caused by the use of space heaters or ovens as supplemental heating sources when heat provided in the buildings was not enough to stay warm. The three deadliest residential fires in the last 20 years in New York, including the Jan. 9 fire, have all occurred in low-income housing in the Bronx where buildings did not conform to fire safety regulations and had insufficient heat.
In March 2007, nine children and one woman died in one of the city’s worst residential fires, also caused by a space heater. In December 2017, another residential fire killed 12 people in the Bronx. Although this incident wasn’t caused by a space heater, the fire spread quickly and likely caused more deaths because the building did not have an installed sprinkler system.
Built in 1974, Twin Parks did not have external fire escapes as the city had banned those in favor of fireproofed stairways on buildings constructed after 1968. When the fire started in a third floor apartment, residents of the apartment escaped. But the door of the apartment did not self-close as it was supposed to. In addition, the stairwell doors did not self-close, and so smoke spread through the building within minutes. Many residents who tried to escape that morning headed for the single available stairway. Some people who were overwhelmed by smoke fell over others on the way down and suffered serious injuries.
“This fire brings home the message that we have not been investing in public infrastructure for so long,” said Van Tran, associate professor of sociology at City University of New York. Tran thinks that investment in public infrastructure is not a priority primarily because the people who are affected are low income.
A 2022 report by Human Rights Watch found that federal budget cuts to public housing repair and maintenance funding by the federal government in the 1990s caused many public housing developments to fall into disrepair. Twin Parks had gone through HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, which is supposed to address this backlog of maintenance and repair needs.
This program enables housing authorities to outsource ownership and management of units to nonprofit or even for-profit entities, while the housing authority retains ownership of the land and oversight of the buildings. Because under RAD the new building managers have access to Section 8 funding for operations, the idea is that they can leverage that reliable source of funding to raise sufficient financing to address deferred maintenance and poor conditions. Twin Parks’ landlords, LIHC Investment Group, Belveron Partners, and Camber Property Group, purchased Twin Parks North West in 2019, and at the time of the fire, the building was managed by Reliant Realty Services. Reliant’s website says “Residents and renters can feel at ease knowing we provide innovative and time-tested methods to ensure our communities are safe and secure.” Both Camber Property Group and Reliant Realty Services did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Those who qualified for and got units in Twin Parks tended to keep them, because of the shortage of housing in the city affordable to those with lower incomes. One such tenant was Gerald Petrie, a 62-year-old former kitchen aide, who had lived in a one-room apartment on the 12th floor. Petrie was born in Brooklyn and moved to Washington Heights in Manhattan in his 30s, working various odd jobs. He finally settled in Twin Parks 10 years ago. Since then, he has made the Fordham Heights neighborhood his home—the post office, the pharmacy, the corner store that sells Afro-Caribbean groceries, all of this a haven that was shaken by the fire.
On the morning of the fire, Petrie says, he first heard the screams before the acrid smell of smoke wafted into his apartment. He eventually managed to escape through the smoke-filled stairway and that evening, city officials moved him to the Ramada by Wyndham on Gerard Avenue in the Bronx, one of several hotels being used to shelter displaced residents. The hotel was over three miles away from Twin Parks, and Petrie lived there for eight months.
It was tough to fit his life into the tiny room at the Ramada, and Petrie was eager to move back home as soon as he could, but repairs in the building were slow. He would often return to his apartment to cook, as the Ramada did not have a kitchen. He describes an incident when he tried to make food on his stove, and soot blew through the stove vent: “It looked like I had black pepper on my fried egg, and I know I didn’t use no black pepper!”
Another tenant, 66-year-old hospital aide Pauline Bryant, who has lived at Twin Parks since 1994, says that only once did she have repairs in the building. Paint was flaking off the wall and the floor tiles were worn.
“I also had problems with mold, and I would call them [the building management] to come and see and fix it,” Bryant says, but even though management would come to check, nothing was done. Bryant would put in requests to the building management and wouldn’t get a response. A complete renovation was only done after the fire.
“There is a culture of mismanagement and negligence, not listening to tenants, thinking of other things like money and finance and rent, but these things are not as important as people’s lives,” says Glyn Robbins, an urban researcher at the London School of Economics. Having worked for agencies that managed similar developments in the U.K., Robbins says that fire disasters like this occur when landlords try to fix issues in buildings cosmetically, without proper investment in repairs and maintenance.
Tenants at Twin Parks echo this concern. “They put a lot of Band-Aids on things,” says Sandra Clayton, 62, who lived in Twin Parks for 26 years and has not returned there since the fire. Clayton says when she had complaints, she called the management office, but it was often quicker to just do minor repairs herself. “We gave them our money and we expected service. That was supposed to be a given,” she said.
Saidattu Hamed, a 34-year-old who lived on the 12th floor with her two children, says she did not want to move back to Twin Parks after four months at a hotel, because she did not trust that the management would fully address the problems that the building had and feared that another tragedy might occur.
Hamed also remembers enduring persistent problems in her apartment before the fire. Many times, the stove wouldn’t work and during many cold winters, there wasn’t enough heat. There was also the unpleasant problem of rodent infestation. Hamed says she remembers calling the police once when it became too much. “Sometimes, we could not sleep because of the rats. Those things were eating all the food we had,” she said. She echoes Campbell’s descriptions of getting repairs only when Section 8 inspections were imminent.
A lot has changed at Twin Parks since the fire in January. The memorial at Angelo Patri Middle School next door has barely survived three seasons. Photos of the victims have been removed from the railings and only three or four strings of graying pink artificial flowers remain. Inside Twin Parks, restoration is ongoing. Air filters have been installed on all the floors for proper ventilation and to combat the faint smell of organic matter and smoke that still lingers. The doors now finally have automatic closers as required by law. Tenants say that management has fixed broken radiators and changed old ones in preparation for the coming winter. New fire alarms have been installed and notices of fire drills are posted on the noticeboard and in the elevator.
However, Petrie, who moved back into his apartment in July, says that despite the restoration work there are a startling number of ongoing problems with the building. The first thing that struck him when he moved back in was how rusty the water was. For days he had to use bottled water for cooking and cleaning. After several complaints to the building’s management, Petrie eventually called the Department of Environmental Protection to report it, and within a few weeks, the problem was fixed.
After that incident, Petrie claims he was threatened, told that if he made trouble, his lease would not be renewed. But he insists he wants to keep making “good trouble, like Mr. John Lewis.” Petrie says that all he wants is for tenants to be treated with dignity, as there is still a lot of work to be done at Twin Parks to guarantee their safety. His main concern now is the soot from the fire that still blows into the apartments through the vents, which he often anxiously observes. “I hate to say this, but if we had white people [in the building] this would never be a problem,” he said. “This is not a good condition to live in. With this soot and dust, you could trigger someone’s asthma.”
Petrie says that as he settles back into his apartment, he is also still struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. He remembers a time before the fire, seeing his neighbors’ kids running back to Twin Parks after school and saying hello to another neighbor when she came back from college classes. The college student and several of those kids lost their lives. And he still hears the screams, the awful helpless screams from that fateful day. Petrie would like to start going to therapy sessions soon, and deal with the trauma of what happened. He hasn’t fully processed the emotional toll of the fire and says he still has nightmares. “I’m still grieving,” he said. “I’m still grieving and suffering. It’s rough.”
Petrie’s former neighbor Hamed now lives in another public housing complex in the South Bronx with her 9-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son. They not only lost their home, but some of her children’s friends died in the fire, and she is trying to help her family deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Hamed thinks more should be done to make housing justice a priority in New York city and avoid such tragedies from recurring. “If it is the summer, they should try to give us air conditioning. If it is winter, give people heat. They should be doing that for everybody,” she said. “We lost people in that fire. We still remember them, they are a part of us, but they should not have died.”
Ngozi Cole is a Sierra Leonean writer and journalist. She graduated with honors from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and is a 2022 Pulitzer Center Post-Graduate Reporting Fellow. She is currently the Business and Economics Reporter for NPR-affiliate station WYSO in Southwest Ohio.