They Escaped Apartment Fires. But They’re Struggling To Survive.

“There’s no relief, no access, and these are people that are always forgotten.”

It was early morning on New Year’s Eve when the fire began. Tenants fled the five-story Chinatown apartment building in New York City as firefighters worked to extinguish flames that had broken out in a top-floor unit.

Two months earlier, in October 2018, Yao Pan Ma and his wife, Baozhen Chen, had moved into a small unit in the building after immigrating from China. Though the firefighters managed to put out the fire before it could spread to their apartment, it suffered such severe smoke and water damage that it was no longer inhabitable.

Left homeless, the couple moved in with Chen’s older parents in a Harlem housing project. Then the pandemic swept New York in March 2020, and Ma lost his job cooking and washing dishes at a restaurant in Chinatown. To support all four of them, he and his wife began collecting bottles and cans on the street, surviving off the 5-cent refunds.

It was while he was out gathering recyclables on April 23, 2021, that Ma was brutally attacked, one of the many victims in the wave of anti-Asian violence that accompanied the pandemic. For months, he lay comatose.

On Dec. 31, 2021 — exactly three years to the day since the fire — Ma died.

At first glance, it might not be obvious how irrevocably that fire altered the course of Ma’s life; no tenants died in the blaze, and it did not receive significant media coverage.

But the fire set into motion a domino effect that ended in Ma’s death at 61.

“This played out like a movie,” Karlin Chan, a spokesperson for Ma’s family, told BuzzFeed News. “You come here, you lose your apartment, you lose your job, you have to go pick up cans to survive just to put something on the table to eat…and then the attack, and his passing in December.”

Ma’s wife, Chen, is still living with her parents. She has not had a job since the attack, and the three live solely on her parents’ Social Security benefits, hoping another expensive hospital bill for Ma’s care doesn’t come in the mail. On Feb. 1, barely a month since Ma’s death, Chen had her first Lunar New Year dinner without her husband. “All of a sudden, this year, there’s an empty plate,” Chan, the spokesperson, said.

For many of the country’s most vulnerable populations, a fire may cause them to lose cherished possessions and fear for their safety. But for people with low incomes, immigrants, and people of color, a fire is often the catalyst that profoundly destabilizes their lives for months or years, leaving them without homes, steady jobs, and access to healthy food and resources, all while they struggle to survive inside a system designed to neglect them.

The glaring disparity in how fires affect marginalized people has often played out in New York City, where landlords cut corners to maintain buildings and the city fails to take meaningful action to hold them accountable.

“New York City’s four deadliest fires in the last 30 years have all been in the Bronx,” said Rep. Ritchie Torres, a Bronx native who recently introduced fire safety legislation. “And that’s not an accident, that’s a consequence of systemic racism.”

Ma’s death was publicly announced on Jan. 8. A day later, a Bronx apartment complex — with a long history of safety violations — caught fire, killing 17 tenants, most of whom were immigrants from Gambia. It was one of the deadliest blazes in the city’s history.

Tenants of the Twin Parks North West apartment building, which predominantly contained households with low incomes, had repeatedly complained of insufficient heat. Temperatures were below freezing the day of the fire, likely prompting the increased use of space heaters. Officials later said a heater caused the fire that started in one apartment and spread because the door was left open when the residents fled. Self-closing doors, which the city requires, had previously been reported as malfunctioning.

Scarce help from the government, coupled with the racism entrenched in the country's infrastructure decisions, has forced survivors to advocate for themselves. Last week, civil rights attorney Ben Crump filed lawsuits on behalf of families who lost their loved ones in the Bronx blaze. He told BuzzFeed News that fires are issues of racial justice due to their outsize impact on Black communities.

“This is Black History Month — we should be learning from our history,” Crump said. “If the city and the government allow corporations to put profit over people, then we will see these tragedies continue to play out in marginalized communities, mostly marginalized communities of color.”

In 2017, about a mile from the site of the Twin Parks North West fire, another Bronx apartment complex went up in flames, killing 13 people, including Maria Batiz, 56, and her 8-month-old granddaughter, Amora Vidal. Christine Batiz, 31, who had lived there her whole life, will never forget the moment her mother called while she was at work.

“She was just like, ‘We’re going to die in here,’” Batiz recalled in an interview. “I felt like my body reached a state of shock, and I kind of blanked out.”

That was the last time Batiz heard her mother’s voice. Maria Batiz and Christine’s infant daughter were later found dead in the bathtub.

Batiz couch surfed for weeks before finding a new apartment. A GoFundMe raised about $50,000 for her, but between paying for funerals and the costs of rebuilding her life, it only lasted five or six months.

When Batiz heard about the January fire — again in her Bronx neighborhood — it broke her heart. She recalled the time her mother had a problem with the stove and called the fire department after the landlord refused to replace it.

“The landlord got upset,” Batiz said. “But would you rather pay $300 for a new stove, or would you want to get sued or have somebody’s life taken away? All of this could be prevented if they just took better care of their buildings.”

New York attorney Robert Vilensky, who has represented victims of several fires over the years, including the Bronx tragedies in 2017 and 2022, said there are glaring inequities with these cases. With government assistance often proving to be inadequate, he said, lawsuits like these are often people’s best chance at regaining financial stability.

“I do a lot of fire cases — ask me if any of them are on Park Avenue. Ask me if any of them are on 5th Avenue. I’ll give you the answer — two letters — NO,” Vilensky said. “Why is it that people of lower socioeconomic status always get the short end of the stick?”

Sheikh Musa Drammeh, a Bronx community leader who organized a public funeral for 15 victims of the Twin Parks North West fire, said it’s no coincidence that the 2017 and 2022 incidents share so many similarities.

“The worst fire tragedy in half a century in New York City took place in the Bronx, and in pretty much one area of the Bronx,” Drammeh said. “If you don’t believe that is by design, then I don’t know what design is.”

Drammeh said the 17 victims died “solely because they lived in the Bronx.”

“Unfortunately, Bronxites are accustomed to being neglected and relegated to third-class citizens — their lives are being devalued,” he added.

This devaluation threatens the lives of marginalized communities nationwide, data shows. Black Americans died from residential fires at approximately twice the rate of white Americans between 1999 and 2019, according to CDC data. And according to the National Fire Protection Association, there are more fires in areas with high poverty rates.

For some, these stark disparities mean a fire could become more than a once-in-a-lifetime tragedy. A Brooklyn family lost their apartment to a fire in December 2020, and barely a month later, lost the new apartment they’d relocated to in another fire. Vilensky, the attorney, said one woman who survived January’s Bronx fire was staying there with her boyfriend after she was displaced by a fire in her own building the day before. Sometimes, catastrophic fires strike the same buildings twice. In 2013, three children died in a fire at a Bronx building caused by candles the family was forced to use after their power was shut for nonpayment. Last March, another fire at the same building killed a man.

Breanna Elleston, 27, has twice had her life forever changed by fires. Last July, a blaze displaced her family from their Brooklyn home, and they spent the next several months in temporary housing. They were finally able to move back on Jan. 9. The next day, Elleston lost her best friend, 27-year-old Sera Janneh, in the Bronx fire.

Elleston had been looking forward to settling back into her home. But now she’s grieving her closest friend, surrounded by boxes she has no energy to unpack.

“Even now, I still think about her constantly,” Elleston said. “I was in the car the other day and a song by Brandy called ‘Best Friend’ came on, and I just started crying, because I don’t have this person, this best friend, anymore.”

After the fire in Elleston’s home, Janneh was incredibly supportive, regularly offering to drive over an hour to visit her. That meant a lot, Elleston said, because the months after the fire were deeply stressful. The hotel they initially stayed in had no kitchen and was poorly maintained, and the temporary apartment they later moved to was in an area where she did not feel safe.

Despite the challenges, Elleston said she’s grateful that her family owns their home and had insurance, factors that made a world of difference in helping them recover. “I kind of had the better end of the stick than what most people in the Bronx might’ve had,” she said.

She wonders whether things might have gone differently had Janneh lived elsewhere, or if the building she called home had better protected her.

“Just knowing that things could have been different if maybe she lived in a different neighborhood, it’s kind of unsettling,” Elleston said.

The racial and socioeconomic disparities associated with fire-related deaths are indisputable, said Jessie Singer, author of the upcoming book There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster — Who Profits and Who Pays the Price.

Accidents are supposed to be random and unpredictable, Singer said, “but if you look at who is killed by accident, there’s nothing random or unpredictable there.”

She said data clearly points to “significant economic and racial disparities [associated with] accidental deaths, particularly those accidents where policy and infrastructure decides who lives and dies.”

She wasn’t surprised when officials blamed January’s Bronx blaze on a space heater, noting the emphasis on individual errors rather than systemic failures after fires.

“The focus on who made a mistake in an accident absolves elected officials of their responsibility to keep us safe — they are the only people who can force corporate landlords into compliance,” Singer said. “It takes the responsibility for life and death off their hands.”

When their Jackson Heights apartment complex caught fire in April 2021, Andrew Sokolof Diaz, his wife, Jacqueline Cosme, and their infant son were displaced from their home — along with more than 500 of their neighbors. They stood outside for hours until the Red Cross found them shelter.

“Because of the city’s inadequacy and the magnitude of this fire, there were children sleeping on garbage bags [on the ground],” Sokolof Diaz said. “They had nowhere for us to go — we were outdoors until midnight.”

One of the most devastating consequences of residential fires is homelessness. The Red Cross provides temporary housing for survivors of large-scale apartment fires, like the recent Bronx fire. But with affordable permanent housing already so scarce in New York City, many survivors of accidental fires remain homeless long afterward.

For the next five months, Sokolof Diaz’s family lived in a cramped hotel room near John F. Kennedy International Airport, on the other side of Queens. With no kitchen or nearby grocery stores, they had little access to healthy food and gained about 20 pounds each. They often skipped breakfast and lunch, and lived mostly on fast food and granola bars. They’d been feeding their son formula, but switched to breastfeeding because it was too difficult to sterilize bottles in the hotel room.

They’ve witnessed firsthand the devastation a fire can have on a community. Their neighbors were sent to hotels all over the city, often a great distance from their schools or workplaces, and many were not allowed to take their pets, Sokolof Diaz said. Several moved into basement apartments, which then flooded during Hurricane Ida, displacing them again, he said.

“There’s no relief, no access, and these are people that are always forgotten,” Cosme said.

As leaders of their tenants’ association, the couple balanced advocating for their neighbors with their own struggles after the fire, as well as holding down jobs and caring for a new baby, all from one hotel room. Sometimes, Sokolof Diaz said, he took Zoom calls in the bathroom.

Organizing efforts have been challenging. Dozens of tenants sued the building’s owners for forbidding them from collecting their belongings after the fire. A judge recently ruled that the building could be demolished before tenants were allowed to retrieve their possessions, but they were later granted access after negotiations. However, once inside, they found that many of their possessions — priceless family heirlooms, stores of cash, jewelry, computers, and vital immigration documents — had been stolen or destroyed by the elements, Solokof Diaz said.

While still searching for permanent affordable housing, his family is no longer living in a hotel, unlike dozens of former neighbors. Originally, they were to be forced out of their hotels by June 20, 2021, but were granted an extension after a rally. They’ve since secured extensions each month, but have no guarantee how long that will continue. If it ends, many will have to go to homeless shelters.

One of the Jackson Heights tenants still in a hotel is 26-year-old Maria Cardoza. In the months since the fire, Cardoza has spoken with the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) for assistance in finding a home. But as an undocumented immigrant and recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, she was told she is ineligible for affordable housing.

“We got some promises from HPD that they were helping us get a place, that we would not be left out, that they would help us,” she said. “They were saying they wouldn’t let us down, but they did.”

Her citizenship status has left her in an impossible situation. Torres, the Bronx lawmaker, admitted there is little the government can do to help her.

“She should be eligible — but as you know, we have a Republican Party in America that is opposed to any and all safety net programs for immigrants without documentation,” Torres said, adding that there are no affordable housing programs available for undocumented immigrants.

The longer Cardoza is homeless, the greater a toll it takes on her health. She too doesn’t have a kitchen and relies on fast food, since healthier options are too expensive, she said. This worries her — she has diabetes, and worsening symptoms could affect her kidneys and liver. Her doctor, whom she visits each month, is now much farther away. And as an Uber driver, she has no health insurance.

Trapped in a vicious cycle, Cardoza can’t afford the foods she needs to stay healthy, but also can’t afford to get sicker. Every month, she said she struggles with anxiety, wondering if she will get kicked out of the hotel.

“It’s a lot of stress and anxiety, and sometimes it’s depressing,” she said. “It just feels like I failed somehow.”

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