In the immediate aftermath of the fire and smoke that tore through a Fordham Heights apartment building, Danny Monge was at the scene, doing what he always does when someone is in distress: He helps out.
The Spuyten Duyvil do-gooder who seemed to be everywhere and anywhere during the coronavirus pandemic was now at M.S. 391 The Angelo Patri School off Webster Avenue, scrambling to help dozens of displaced families that surrounded him.
“I was literally in the middle of a conversation with one woman when her imam came over and told her her daughter died in the fire,” Monge said. “The wails and the screaming from her — I can’t get that out of my mind.”
That young girl was one of eight children who died in the Sunday morning blaze at 333 E. 181st St., which also killed nine adults, according to details released Monday. New York Fire Department investigators blamed the fire on a malfunctioning space heater in a two-level apartment on the third floor. While the flames were mostly contained to a single floor, heavy smoke filled large portions of the 19-story structure, which proved fatal for many. Sending dozens more to the hospital in serious condition.
Monge couldn’t think about all that on Sunday, however. Instead, he was looking to where he could help find food and other supplies they would need after fleeing their homes with not much more than what they happened to be wearing.
“There’s a lot of local people here doing stuff,” Monge said. “Everyone wants to help, even if it’s painful for them.”
One donor was a man from The Whitehall who recently lost his wife.
“He had two gigantic boxes of clothes,” Monge said. “I’ve picked up a bunch of donations from local people. Many have stopped collecting items, because they already have too much.”
Within 24 hours of the tragic fire, many locations — even in this part of the Bronx — like the Riverdale Jewish Center, SAR Academy and Riverdale Neighborhood House collected donations. Other groups close to the Fordham Heights building — like the Gambian Youth Organization, raised more than $800,000 through online crowdfunding as of Tuesday morning.
Help has poured in everywhere — but sometimes too much, as Mayor Eric Adams shared on Monday. He implored people not to drop off donations at fire or police stations since they had enough to deal with while also trying to distribute donations.
“It is clear that these families — and the entire community — is receiving support from across the country,” Adams told reporters on Monday. “Just a few moments ago, I received a call from President Biden, and he made it clear that whatever we need, the White House is going to be there for us.”
And some federal dollars are already available to those victimized by the fire. At least according to U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer. Anyone displaced can move into any building with free space that accepts housing vouchers, Schumer said. Federal law already exists for families needing housing subsidies, allowing them to immediately transfer to any other eligible building.
This specific part of the Bronx is represented by state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, but his upper chamber colleague — Alessandra Biaggi — was the on the ground talking relief efforts with CNN Monday.
“The biggest needs we’re seeing from family members — and just the community in general — are basic needs,” the senator said. “Things like toiletries and towels, and clothing and shoes. I mean, when you lose everything, you lose everything. And so you have to go back to basic necessities.”
Biaggi also found herself at M.S. 391 the day before, a scene she could only describe as horrific.
“We walked into a room full of over 200 people,” she said. “And you know, you think of people and you think of babies. But then there were also animals — people’s dogs and their cats.”
While much of the focus is on providing for the needs of the families displaced by the fire, Biaggi also can’t help but notice the larger number of fires taking place in the Bronx — especially since the start of winter — that appear to disproportionately affect lower-income housing, like what was found at 333 E. 181st. It seems many of the blazes discovered at homes run by the New York City Housing Authority or even Mitchell-Lama state-subsidized housing, where heat isn’t always at the levels it should be to keep its residents warm.
“What we’re seeing is that a lot of the buildings don’t have not only the safety measures in place, but also they don’t have the oversight and the enforcement of building code,” Biaggi said. “It’s not a sexy issue to talk about building codes. But frankly, building codes are the things that save lives. So I think that the bigger issue here is that there are legislative fixes in the New York City Council, and at the federal government level, and certainly at the state level.”
Adams, however, also feels more lives can be saved if people were better educated about how to stop fires from spreading rapidly through old apartment buildings. Many grew up learning that if they were on fire, to “stop, drop and roll,” but the mayor also wants people to remember that if they discover a fire — close the door to whatever room it’s in to help contain it.
“We’re going to send out communications to all of our schools stating that we want our children to receive the same level of reinforcement” about closing doors in a fire, Adams said. “Muscle memory is everything. And if we can drill that in, we can save lives by closing the doors not only in the city, but across the entire globe.
“This painful moment can turn into a purposeful moment as we send the right message of something as simple as closing the door.”
That’s certainly something to consider in the future to prevent tragedies like this happening again, Monge said. But for now, he’s more focused on the here and now.
“Yes, this is a tragedy,” he said, “but I also think it’s bringing out the best in humanity right now. This is what I like to see people doing — all races, whoever you are, stepping up and helping these families. At times like this, you don’t see a lot of division. You see people pulling together.
“It’s unfortunate that it takes a tragedy to do that. But I’m happy to see it going on right now to help these families from that building.”