Several families, mostly Gambians, whose loved ones died or were injured while trying to escape a smoked-filled New York apartment building sued the owners Tuesday, alleging safety violations that led to the wrongful deaths of 17 people, including eight children.
The five lawsuits were filed on behalf of the families by Benjamin Crump, a civil rights attorney based in Florida, and the New York law firm Weitz & Luxenberg.
“We have a lot of the families who paid such a tragic loss in the apartment fire,” Crump said during a news conference outside the building, saying violations of city safety rules “caused unspeakable loss of life and injury to these families, mostly from Africa.”
A malfunctioning electric space heater started the blaze the morning of Jan. 9, fire officials said.
While the fire damaged only a small part of the building, it produced caustic smoke that quickly engulfed the complex. The suffocating smoke rose through a stairwell of the 19-story building and killed people as they attempted to flee.
“These Black families who lost so much that seem to be marginalised not only before the tragic fire broke out, but even in the aftermath,” said Crump, who gained attention as spokesperson for the family of George Floyd.
The lawsuits do not specify monetary damages, nor do they mention specific safety violations.
A spokesperson for the building’s owners denied they were responsible.
Several relatives of the fire victims spoke at the news conference to express frustration over the uncertainties spawned by the fire as they look for new places to live. Some remain in hotel rooms.
“What happened on Jan. 9 was very devastating and tragic, and very unexpected, and could have been avoided. I lost my sister in the fire. She was trying to come down to save my family,” said Fatima Janneh, whose sister Sera, 27, was among those killed.
“We need justice for the families that lost people, as well as the other tenants in the building. We’re all victims to what happened here,” Janneh said.
The plaintiffs include the mother of a 2-year-old boy who died and parents who lost their 12-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. They also include a 20-year-old mother whose 3-month old son was hospitalised.
Many residents were immigrants from the Gambia. Their shared origins, with some of them hailing from the same village, fostered a close-knit community.