By Tami Luhby and Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN Photographs by Timothy Fadek for CNN
Nfamara Kebe cries while describing the deadly fire in the Bronx apartment building where several members of his family lived.
At least one of his relatives was killed in Sunday’s blaze, Kebe said. And her nephew’s 2-year-old son is hospitalized and is fighting for his life.
The family hope for the best for the boy, he says, but brace themselves for the worst.
“It’s too much,” Kebe said.
And Kebe, who arrived in the United States from Guinea 35 years ago, says it’s not just his own parents he’s worried about. The building and the neighborhood are home to many West African immigrants. And for him, they are also part of the family.
“We are one community,” he says. “When we meet here, we are the same family.
A day after the fire, which authorities say killed 17 people and injured dozens more, volunteers are mobilizing to help, survivors are in shock and family members of the tight-knit immigrant community are always looking for loved ones and desperately looking for answers.
“I am totally worried and devastated – not me alone, but the whole community and the family as a whole. Everyone is worried. We don’t know what happened. … This is the most difficult thing – not knowing, ”said Yusupha Jawara, who spoke to CNN at a mosque where many were praying for the victims.
Jawara, who is Gambian, says he’s been trying to reach his brother and sister-in-law since learning about the fire, but they don’t answer their phones.
Authorities did not release the names of the victims on Monday evening.
So many Gambians were among those affected that the country’s ambassador traveled to New York to meet with their families.
Ambassador Dawda Docka Fadera says he is working to learn more about the victims and has met survivors who had managed to escape the building.
“They have horrible stories,” he says. “It was very sad.… I’ve never seen this in my life. It’s so tragic. It’s really huge.
She hopes the death toll won’t rise
Kujegi Camara, 27, spent Monday afternoon sorting through clothes, toys and other items donated to the Gambian Youth Organization, which is a few blocks from the building.
Everyone in the community, she says, knows people who have been affected by the fire.
Several members of his extended family are in the hospital, including children, Camara said. And her friend’s sister is missing.
Camara grew up in the neighborhood and her parents still live nearby. Although she moved elsewhere in the Bronx, she returned to volunteer after hearing the news.
“I just hope that the number (of victims) does not increase,” she said.
Camara said she wondered if underlying issues in the building could have played a role in the blaze.
Officials said the blaze started with a faulty heater in one bedroom and they were examining fire alarms and building doors.
The building doors were supposed to close automatically, but the door to the apartment where the fire started, as well as the door to the stairwell on the 15th floor, were not functioning properly, New York Fire Marshal Daniel Nigro said on Monday.
“Our people deserve a lot more,” says Camara.
The building was a “first port of call” for many immigrants
The 19-story apartment building has been a beloved home for many immigrants to The Gambia for years, the West African country’s ambassador told CNN.
“A lot of Gambians who came here, they stayed there before moving elsewhere. It was sort of a first stopover, this building. It is a building that Gambians are very attached to, ”said Fadera. “It is so sad that this horrific and tragic incident has claimed so many lives and left many people fighting for their lives.”
Fadera traveled from Washington to New York after learning of the fire which he said devastated a tight-knit community not only in New York City but also in West Africa.
“The Gambia is a very small country, 2 million inhabitants. Everyone knows everyone. We are all related. It’s a shock in our country right now, ”he said.
Her family got stranded as smoke filled the hallways
Emergency vehicles remained outside the building on Monday. The devastation of the fire was clearly visible even from the street – a large number of windows were smashed and a curtain fluttered in the wind through one of them.
Mamadou Wague says he’s still in shock. On Sunday, he said, the sound of his children’s screams woke him up.
Wague lives on the third floor of the building with her eight children, ranging from 6 months to 18 years old.
Wague yelled at everyone to get out, but then realized he had to come back to pick up his 8-year-old daughter, who was still in the apartment.
His family could not escape the building because there was too much smoke, he said. Terrified, they waited in a neighbor’s apartment, putting wet towels under the doors, until firefighters arrived 15 to 30 minutes later to escort them up the stairs. The children were crying, he said.
Wague, an Uber driver who immigrated to the United States from Mali in 2000, said the fire burned all of his family’s belongings.
“It all went to my apartment,” he said. “It’s all gone.”
Now the family is staying with friends in the Bronx, he says. He doesn’t know what to do next.
They are not sure they want to go back
While some displaced families take refuge with friends, others take refuge in nearby hotels.
World Central Kitchen installed in a hotel community hall on Monday, providing water, snacks and meals donated by local restaurants. Other volunteers went door to door asking if the families needed anything. The pizza boxes arrived at noon, delighting some of the children who had fled.
Several residents of the building said they were not eager to return, expressing concerns for their safety.
Jessika Valdez, 38, says she received a call on Monday telling her she could return to the building. She escaped the fire with her mother, Aydez, and their 1 year old dog, Luna.
But they’re not sure they want to return, although Valdez says they forgot to bring his glasses and clothes with them when they ran away.
Luna still smells of smoke. And Valdez knows everything else in their 18th floor apartment will be too.
She is concerned about the safety of the building, noting that she did not see a sprinkler go off during the fire.
But Valdez says a bigger question hangs in his mind about the building they left behind.
“It’s literally a grave,” she says.
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CNN’s Tami Luhby reported from the Bronx. CNN’s Catherine E. Shoichet reported from Arlington, Virginia. CNN’s Shimon Prokupecz contributed to this report.