Health

Desperate search for those missing in Bronx fire: ‘We’re still waiting’

They were all
relatives of people still missing more than 24 hours after a fatal fire in a
Bronx apartment building that killed 17, including eight children. As many as
12 members of the Masjid-Ur-Rahmah mosque were believed to have died in the
fire, the imam, Musa Kabba, said.

“We give them the
pictures. We give them the names. We give them the phone numbers. We’re still
waiting for them to identify them,” Kabba said.

On Tuesday night, the
city released a partial list of the deceased. The chaos of the rescue and the
striking number of victims complicated the identification process.

On Sunday, more than
60 fire victims initially went to four different hospitals in the Bronx.
Seventeen of them died within hours, all of the deaths attributed to severe
smoke inhalation. About a dozen critically ill patients were stabilised at
local hospitals and later transferred to facilities with specialised burn units
in Manhattan, Westchester County and other parts of the Bronx.

Many survivors were
also treated for severe smoke inhalation, which can cause people to become
unconscious from lack of oxygen. Not everyone carried identification, and some
residents shared similar names to other family members. Multiple members of a
single family were close in age, also adding to confusion.

Features like
tattoos, body jewellery, nail art and scars were used to piece together
identities of the deceased, the medical examiner’s office said.

The office has used
DNA matching to confirm identities by obtaining DNA from relatives and
notifying immediate family members after a match has been made, City Hall
officials said. The deliberate process has contributed to a lag in releasing
the names of the deceased, officials said.

Shivonne Hutson, the
city’s executive director of forensic investigations, said forensic examiners
were also mindful of language and religious differences. Many of the building’s
residents had relocated to the Bronx from Gambia, a small West African country
with a largely Muslim population.

“Observances — these
things extend not just in life, but they carry on into death,” Hutson said.

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Age, too, was a
complicating factor: Without any identification or little previous medical
history, the children posed a particular challenge. “Kids don’t have all the
records,” like fingerprints or dental records, that adults may have, Hutson
said.

After the flames
subsided and the fatal smoke dissipated, a new horror crept in: Other
residents, family members and friends were left unsure about the status of loved
ones. Hours rolled by, and many people across New York and Gambia spent hours
in excruciating limbo, unsure who was alive or dead.

Some families called
every hospital in the area, searching for missing relatives. Others visited on
foot, desperate for answers.

Aid workers at Monroe
College, which is serving as a temporary emergency response centre, have been
relying on an unofficial list of the dead, injured, missing and displaced,
compiled by a local community board member. He has tried to write down the
names, contact information and needs of every person who shows up at the
college, in an ad hoc intake list.

Gathering information
is hard, in part because of language barriers, said Abdoulaye Cisse, a
community outreach worker for CAIR-NY, a group that advocates for Muslims. Some
residents speak English, but others speak only various combinations of French
and the many languages of West Africa.

Fears of immigration
authorities linger among some undocumented residents. And some families, he
said, are deeply private or are in shock and not ready to talk about their
situation.

Dustin Jones watched
television footage of the Bronx fire from his apartment in the Chelsea area of
Manhattan, frantically calling a friend who he thought lived in the building. Luckily,
he was mistaken — she lived a few blocks away — but his relief didn’t last
long.

He quickly learned he
knew two residents of the building: Ramel Thompson, 44, and Dorel Anderson, 38,
a couple. The three had met each other through a tight-knit disability
community: Thompson and Anderson both have cerebral palsy, and Jones is an
advocate for disability rights.

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After failing to
contact the couple, Jones and about 100 others, many of them relatives of the
couple and members of the disabled community, began a 24-hour search for them,
much of it online.

He also knew the
couple lived on the 13th floor, and was particularly worried about Anderson,
who uses a wheelchair.

Jones said he never
considered contacting the city for assistance. Instead, he amplified the
missing couple on social media, reached out to his media contacts and called
friends for information, including a firefighter who had been on the scene. “We
live in the age of social media, and I’ve seen miracles happen,” Jones said.

A relative eventually
found the couple at Westchester Medical Center, in Valhalla, New York, on
Monday, where they were transferred to an advanced burn unit. Anderson and
Thompson were still being treated; Anderson’s wheelchair was missing.

Breanna Elleston, 27,
said she heard her best friend Sera Janneh, 27, was missing Sunday. Elleston
assumed that Janneh was in the hospital, unidentified. She called a few close
friends and asked them to reach out to her. Their calls went straight to
voicemail.

So Elleston made an
Instagram post about her friend, and asked followers to share it, to “see if
they knew anybody that worked in nearby hospitals, if they see her face, they
could match it up with a picture.” There was still no luck.

Undeterred, Elleston
and some friends planned to put up pictures around the Bronx. When she informed
Janneh’s family of the plan, they told her Janneh had died.

Mohamed Kamra, too,
was working a shift as a taxi driver when he learned that his family was caught
in the blaze.

He and a relative
frantically tried to locate their entire family. Soon, they found 6-year-old
Jabu, 3-year-old Abubakary and baby Ceesay, not yet 1 year old. But it took
hours for Kamra to locate his wife, Fatoumatia, or his eldest daughter,
8-year-old Mariam.

A volunteer at the Gambian Youth Organization in the Bronx sorts clothing donations on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, for survivors of an apartment building fire on Sunday. Officials initially said on Sunday that 19 people were killed in connection with the fire, but Mayor Eric Adams revised the number to 17 at a news conference on Monday. David Dee Delgado/The New York Times

A volunteer at the Gambian Youth Organization in the Bronx sorts clothing donations on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, for survivors of an apartment building fire on Sunday. Officials initially said on Sunday that 19 people were killed in connection with the fire, but Mayor Eric Adams revised the number to 17 at a news conference on Monday. David Dee Delgado/The New York Times

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Christina Kharem, a
teacher and special education coach at Mariam’s school, spent her day on the
phone with her principal calling hospitals around the city, trying to locate
Miriam and her mother, while Kamra searched in person.

He found Mariam and
Fatoumatia by Sunday evening. Each family member was in medically induced comas
and on ventilators.

With Kamra’s
permission, Kharem created an online fundraiser for the Kamra family around 3
a.m. Monday, asking for donations of both money and supplies. They got their
first donation before dawn.

By Monday afternoon,
Kamra had visited four of his hospitalised family members and was on his way to
see a fifth.

Relieved that he
tracked down his family, he remained optimistic Monday night that they would
recover. “For me, right now, it’s no bad memory yet,” he said.

But for some, hope
diminished as the hours went by without news.

Yusupha Jawara told
CBS New York that he called 311 more than 40 times trying to learn the fate of
his younger brother and sister-in-law, who lived in the building, a block from
him.

“We tried all they
said,” Jawara, 47, said. “Nothing is working for us now.”

He said he understood
there were procedures to be followed. “But we need a closure on this to know
whether they are alive or dead,” Jawara said. “That’s all we need. We are not
asking for the bodies to be given to us right now. He’s alive or he’s dead.
That’s all we need to know.”

At about 4:30 pm
Monday, Jawara texted a reporter that he had received word: His brother and sister-in-law
perished in the fire.

©2022 The New York
Times Company

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