The Dukuray family had followed the same path as many of their neighbors, leaving the small West African nation of Gambia over a decade ago to join a tight-knit immigrant enclave in the Bronx.
Haja, a mother of three, worked as a home health aide, while her husband, Hajie, took shifts at a fried chicken shop, intending to save and send money back to their homeland, said a relative, Hawa Dukuray. The couple’s children were all born in the United States: Mustapha, who was just two weeks shy of his 13th birthday; Mariam, 11, and Fatoumata, who had just turned 5.
The family settled in a 19th-floor apartment on East 181st Street, a towering building filled with other West Africans and near the mosques where many of them worship. During Ramadan nights, the family would gather at the apartment to cook Gambian-style chicken and jollof rice.
They were home on Sunday morning when a malfunctioning space heater in a third-floor apartment sparked a blaze that filled the building with smoke — and prevented their escape.
Hawa Dukuray, 21, would hear later that her relatives had tried to descend from their top-floor apartment as the suffocating plumes rose, blackening the hallways as desperate residents sought to flee. They must have assumed, she reasoned, that it would be safer to get out of the building using the only method available: the internal staircases. The building did not have outdoor fire escapes.
They never made it, part of a death toll that stood at 17, nine adults and eight children and that officials warned could rise. Fifteen people remained in critical condition on Monday evening.
“I’m heartbroken,” said Ms. Dukuray, crying.
City officials said that the deaths had largely been caused by the smoke, which spread throughout the building after the door to the apartment where the fire started was left open. Another door, leading from the 15th floor to a staircase, was also open, Fire Department Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro said at a news conference outside the building on Monday.
The doors are supposed to close by themselves, and the investigation was continuing into what might have happened. Mr. Nigro said that trying to flee from a high floor during a fire was itself risky.
“We do recommend in high-rise fireproof buildings that people should shelter in place, and it’s safer to be in your apartment than to venture out and try to get down the stairs and sometimes into a much more dangerous situation,” Mr. Nigro said.
Mayor Eric Adams and other officials said they would focus on reminding the public to close doors when fires break out, to contain deadly smoke.
Authorities had not yet officially released the names of any of the victims. The medical examiner’s office was still working to identify victims and to notify next-of-kin on Monday, and the identifications were being conducted by video because of concern over the continuing coronavirus pandemic.
“We are working with great care and sensitivity to identify the victims, determine causes and manners of death, and help the grieving families expedite arrangements for their loved ones in accordance with beliefs and customs,” Dr. Jason Graham, the acting chief medical examiner, said in a statement.
At Masjid-Ur-Rahmah, a storefront mosque near the building that serves a largely Gambian population, the imam, Musa Kabba, said that 10 to 12 of his members were missing. He expressed concern that the pace of the identification efforts was interfering with the Muslim obligation to bury the dead as quickly as possible.
The Gambian ambassador, Dawda Docka Fadera, traveled from Washington and appeared at the news conference with the mayor and other officials. He said that the majority of the victims were from his country, which has a population of less than two million people, and that the tragedy had reverberated there.
“We are all related, everybody knows everybody,” he said. “Our country is currently in a state of shock.”
The three Dukuray children were pronounced dead at hospitals on Sunday, and their parents were still missing as of Monday afternoon, leading relatives to believe that they too had perished in the worst fire in the city in decades, Hawa Dukuray said in an interview.
She said she wished she could tell them not to leave their apartment but said that she would have done the same in their shoes.
On Sunday, Hassane Badr, 28, who is originally from Mali, said that two of his siblings were also among the children who died in the fire, and that a 25-year-old cousin remained missing. As he waited for news about two other siblings, who had been injured, he said he was in shock.
“To be honest, I’m not believing it right now,” he said.
Sarah Maslin Nir, Ashley Southall, Liam Stack Anne Barnard and Ana Ley contributed reporting. Susan Beachy contributed research.