NEW YORK (AP) — The caskets were brought one by one — all 15 of them — on a frigid winter day, as hundreds of mourners filled a Bronx mosque Sunday to bid farewell to those who died exactly a week ago trying to escape their smoke-filled apartment building.
Many hundreds more huddled outside, peering into the mosque’s windows or watching on big-screen televisions, to pay their respects after New York City’s deadliest fire in three decades.
“One week they were with us … now they’re gone,” said Musa Kabba, the imam at the Masjid-Ur-Rahmah mosque, where many of the deceased had prayed. “Last Sunday it happened, and today we are about to bury these families. It is hard.”
In all, 17 people died in the fire, which authorities said was sparked by a faulty space heater in a third-floor apartment. Among the dead were eight children as young as 2, whose tiny caskets underscored the day’s loss.
All of those who lost their lives collapsed and were overcome by smoke while trying to descend the building’s stairwell.
Sunday’s mass funeral at the Islamic Cultural Center capped a week of prayers and mourning within a close-knit community hailing from West Africa, most with connections to the small country of Gambia — where four of the victims would be buried, officials said. Eleven of the victims were transported to a cemetery in New Jersey.
Earlier in the week, burial services were held for two children at a mosque in Harlem.
“This is a sad situation. But everything comes from God. Tragedies always happen, we just thank Allah that we can all come together,” said Haji Dukuray, the uncle of Haja Dukuray, who died with three of her children and her husband.
Men and women alike wept openly as the six children and nine adults were given final rites before their caskets were returned to the hearses.
Ibrahim Saho’s reddened eyes welled with tears as he rattled off the family names of the deceased. “A lot of people, too many people,” he said, dabbing tears.
Amid the mourning, there was also frustration and anger, as family, friends and neighbors of the dead tried to make sense of the tragedy.
“There’s outcry. There’s injustice. There’s neglect,” said Sheikh Musa Drammeh, who was among those leading the response to the tragedy.
Some residents said space heaters were sometimes needed to supplement the building’s heat, and apartment repairs weren’t always done in a timely fashion — if at all.
Because of the magnitude of the tragedy, funeral organizers insisted on a public funeral to bring attention to the plight of immigrant families across New York City.
“We want the world to know that they died because they lived in the Bronx,” Drammeh asserted. “If they lived in midtown Manhattan, they would not have died. Why? Because they wouldn’t need to use space heaters. This is a public outcry. Therefore, there has to be responsibility from the elected officials to change the conditions that causes death every single day.”
New York City Mayor Eric Adams, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, as well as two officials representing the Gambian government, attended the funeral services.
“When tragedies occur, we come together,” Schumer said.
Adams later added that he was there “to express the pain all New Yorkers are experiencing.”
New York Attorney General Letitia James vowed to investigate, saying “there were conditions in that building that should have been corrected.”
The investigation into the fire is ongoing.
The fire itself was contained to one unit and an adjoining hallway, but investigators said the door to the apartment and a stairway door many floors up had been left open, creating a flue that allowed plumes of black, choking smoke to quickly spread throughout the 19-story building.
New York City fire codes generally require apartment doors at larger apartment developments to be spring-loaded and slam shut automatically.
In the wake of the deaths, a coalition of officials — including federal, state and city lawmakers — announced a legislative agenda they hoped would stiffen fire codes and building standards to prevent similar tragedies from happening.
The proposals range from requiring that space heaters automatically shut off, to mandating that federally funded apartment projects install self-closing doors on units and stairwells, which would have to be inspected on a monthly basis.
As families bid farewell to their loved ones, others remained in hospitals, some in serious condition because of smoke inhalation.
Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Sunday that $2 million in aid would be available to help families recover from the tragedy, including help to replace damaged property and money to help with rent or finding a new place to live.
The Mayor’s Fund, Bank of America and other groups said 118 families displaced by the fire would each get $2,250 in aid.
Fundraisers have collected about $400,000 thus far.
All week, family members had been anxious to lay their loved ones to rest in line with Islamic tradition, which calls for burial as soon after death as possible. But complications over identifying the victims delayed their release to funeral homes.