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Fire in a Bronx apartment building killed 17, many of them West African immigrants

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Authorities in New York have now identified the 17 people who died in a fire in a Bronx high-rise apartment building earlier this week. The victims range from babies to people in their 50s, and Gwynne Hogan of member station WNYC reports many of them were part of a tight-knit community of West African immigrants.

GWYNNE HOGAN, BYLINE: At the Islamic Cultural Center of the Bronx, Uber driver from Mali, Mamadou Wague, was finishing his evening prayers. The fire started in his apartment. He lived there with his wife and their eight children.

MAMADOU WAGUE: I heard my kiddies scream, said daddy, it's fire, fire, fire in our room. So I tell everybody, get out, to get out.

HOGAN: Officials say the blaze was caused by a space heater. Wague says he used space heaters because the apartment was often so cold it was hard to sleep. Fire destroyed everything they had. They'll need to find a new place to live. He spoke softly, his head hung low, as he expressed his sorrow for what had happened.

WAGUE: I'm feeling very sorry about it. I pray for everybody. Anybody dead, we will pray for them. Anybody injured, we will pray for them.

HOGAN: People who stayed in their apartments survived, but some who tried to flee through hallways and down the stairwells were trapped in thick black clouds of smoke and suffocated. High-rises are supposed to have doors that close automatically, but officials say Wague's apartment door and another stairwell door stayed open, allowing smoke to spread. The building's owner had already been fined for the issue several times.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We come here tonight in grief.

HOGAN: Last night, dozens of neighbors gathered outside the building in freezing temperatures to mourn the dead and pray for the living. Registered nurse Fatou Gomex-Ceesay is also from Gambia and knew many victims.

FATOU GOMEX-CEESAY: They're part of us. We all family. We're all related. We all take care of each other's children, so all of them is ours.

HOGAN: By all accounts, this building was the beating heart of the Gambian community in this section of the West Bronx. Haji Dukuray says it all started when one family moved into the building in the 1980s.

HAJI DUKURAY: That was, like, the building block to this community. We started renting around this area, and it just keep expanding and expanding. Now you have thousands and thousands of us that live around here.

HOGAN: Dukuray lost five relatives in the fire. The interconnected web of families, many of whom came from the same Gambian tribe, watched each other's kids and braided each other's hair. They cooked together, pooled resources and prayed at the same mosques. Many say they're putting their faith in God, but some of them are angry.

Momodou Sawaneh is the founder of the Gambian Youth Organization, a community group that runs cultural activities and a food pantry. One of their longtime members died of smoke inhalation. Sawaneh says his neighbors didn't have to die.

MOMODOU SAWANEH: Even if they had communication system - everybody stay in their apartment. Don't move.

HOGAN: But he's taken solace in the outpouring of support he's witnessed from the community. His little non-profit has raised nearly $1 million for victims, and people from all over have come to volunteer and drop off donations. Sawaneh says it brings him to tears.

SAWANEH: Sometimes I think maybe this is not real, what I'm seeing, because I've never - I've been in this country for 30 years. I've never seen anything like this.

HOGAN: These families lived side by side together, some for years. And they'll be together as they mourn the dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRAYER SERVICE)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

HOGAN: For NPR News, I'm Gwynne Hogan in the Bronx.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUSTIN O'HALLORAN'S "AN ENDING, A BEGINNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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