Bronx Fire That Killed 12 Is Latest in History of New York City's Deadliest Fires

Firefighters battle a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911. The blaze killed 123 women and 23 men.
Firefighters battle a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911. The blaze killed 123 women and 23 men. Getty

At least 12 people, including three young children and a 1-year-old baby girl, were killed Thursday in the worst blaze New York City has seen in more than 25 years.

Authorities said the fire that tore through the Bronx apartment building was started by a 3-year-old boy playing with a stove in a first-floor apartment.

FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro called the blaze “historic,” saying "in a department that’s certainly no stranger to tragedy, we’re shocked at this loss.”

Some of the deadliest fires in New York City’s history include:

Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876

As many as 300 people lost their lives when gas stage light caused a canvas backdrop to catch fire during a sold-out performance at the Brooklyn Theater on Dec. 5, 1876.

Only one staircase led out of the highest and least expensive tier of seats known as the family circle, which quickly filled with suffocating smoke and rose to extreme temperatures.

Panicked theater goers jammed the only exit and some were trampled in the chaos. At least 278 people died, but some accounts reported as many as 300 killed in the blaze. A common grave at Greenwood Cemetery became the final resting place of 103 unidentified victims.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911

In one of the most infamous fires in U.S. history, 123 women and 23 men were killed after a fire, which was believed to have started in a scrap bin, spread through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911.

Victims were unable to escape the fire as it spread through the factory’s three floors in the Asch Building because the doors to the stairwells and exits were kept locked to ensure employees stayed inside.

Many people jumped or fell out of the windows from the eighth, ninth and 10th floors, while others perished from the fire and smoke inhalation.

Happy Land Social Club Fire of 1990

Thursday's fire is the city's deadliest since a raging inferno at a Bronx nightclub killed 87 people in 1990. 

Arsonist Julio Gonzalez used $1 worth of gasoline to set the Happy Land social club ablaze after getting kicked out over a fight with an ex-girlfriend who worked there. According to a report, she survived the fire.

Gonzalez was found guilty on 87 counts of arson and 87 counts of murder on Aug. 19, 1991. He died in prison of a heart attack on Sept. 13, 2016.

The street the former club stood on has been renamed “The Plaza of the Eighty-Seven” in memory of the victims who lost their lives.

Puerto Rican Social Club Fire of 1976

Escape was made impossible in another, deadly fire in the Bronx, where an unemployed salesman and a teenager set fire to a Puerto Rican social club and its only staircase in 1976.

Twenty-five young party goers were killed and 24 others were injured, with survivors forced to jump out a second-story window. Many victims died of asphyxiation before they could reach the window.

“Everybody started acting crazy,” survivor José Echeverria told The New York Times at the time. “The only way out was the window and we took turns. I had to wait for two people before I could jump. If I stayed one minute longer I'm dead.”

Francisco Mendez, 17, was convicted of 25 counts of murder for spreading the gasoline that created the deadly blaze. He reportedly smiled when he was found guilty. Jose Cordero, 41, who used marijuana, rum and a promise of a car to get Mendez to set the fire, pleaded guilty to arson. The married father of two was reportedly angry that his young girlfriend was at the dance that night against his wishes. According to a report, she was killed in the fire.

Hector Lopez, 18, admitted to striking the match that started the fire. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Monarch Underwear Company Fire of 1958

Only five blocks from where the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory once stood, a fire broke out at another factory that killed at least two dozen people on March 19, 1958.

Twenty-four people were killed and 15 more were injured when a five-alarm fire broke out at the Monarch Underwear Company, located in a loft building at 623 Broadway. The blaze started in the third-floor textile printing plant and spread to the fourth and fifth floors.

Some panicked workers jumped out of the building, while others were rescued by firefighters on ladders. The deceased were found huddled under work benches, near windows and by a staircase.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the building had one fire escape, no sprinklers and workers at the factory had never been through fire drills.

Wonder Drug and Cosmetics Fire of 1966

Twelve firefighters were killed when the floor of Wonder Drug store gave way on Oct. 17, 1966.

The men of Engine 18, Ladder Company 7 and several commanding officers were trying to get a hose to the back of a burning four-story brownstone on E. 22nd Street that butted up against the drugstore when the floor collapsed. An inquiry showed a cellar wall had been moved, leaving the drugstore’s floor unsupported, The New York Times reported.

It took 14 hours to dig out the dead. Those killed left behind 12 widows and 32 children, and until Sept. 11, 2001, the incident was the heaviest loss of life in the FDNY’s history.

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