The high-rise in the Bronx where 19 people died in a fire on Sunday was home to many African immigrants who chose their apartments for the close-knit community and proximity to local mosques.
A significant number of the building’s residents were practicing Muslims and originally from Gambia, Mayor Eric Adams said at a news conference on Sunday.
He spoke about respecting cultural and religious needs, especially related to burial rites, and emphasized that support would be provided regardless of immigration status.
Gov. Kathy Hochul reassured residents of the building, on East 181st Street, that she would not forget them. She announced plans to establish a victims’ compensation fund to help secure new housing and pay for burials and other costs.
“Tonight is a night of tragedy and pain, and tomorrow we begin to rebuild,” she said. “We rebuild their lives and give them hope. Especially those who came all the way from Africa. Gambians in search of a better life right here in this great borough, the borough of the Bronx. They’re part of our family.”
Smoke traveled throughout the 19-story building and victims suffered from severe smoke inhalation, said Daniel A. Nigro, the city’s fire commissioner. More than 60 residents were injured.
Hassane Badr’s family, a total of 11 people from Mali, including his parents and siblings, lived in a three-bedroom apartment on the third floor. Two siblings, both children, were killed, he said, adding that a 25-year-old cousin remained unaccounted for.
At Jacobi Medical Center, Mr. Badr waited for news about his 12-year-old brother, who was suffering from serious smoke inhalation. A 5-year-old sister, who was also injured, was at another hospital.
He said there was no time yet to grieve or even think about burials.
“I’m thinking like I’m dreaming, this is not true. You hear people crying, my goodness,” said Mr. Badr, 28. “To be honest, I’m not believing it right now.”
He said his family had lived at the high-rise for at least six years, drawn to it in part for its African connection and the availability to nearby mosques.
Ahouss Balima, 20, who lived on the ninth floor with his parents and three younger sisters, who are all from Burkina Faso, said that the building’s community was “very close.”
“We meet up all the time, apartment to apartment,” said Mr. Balima. “We all know each other.”
At St. Barnabas Hospital, Musa Kabba, a local imam, said he was waiting with anguished relatives for victims to be identified. Several residents attended his mosque on Webster Avenue, the Masjid-Ur-Rahmah, he said. The mosque is a four-minute walk from the building.
“We know that people died,” Mr. Kabba said. “We don’t know who they are.”
Salim Drammeh, the president of the Gambian Youth Organization, said that the nonprofit’s center was blocks away from the apartment building and had opened to collect donations and provide emotional support to the community. He said that contributions, both in person and to an online fund-raiser, just started “flooding in.”
“This is how our community is; we love this community,” said Mr. Drammeh, 26. “Every time anybody is in trouble, we show up for each other.”
Ana Ley, Eduardo Medina and Sean Piccoli contributed reporting.