The New York City Fire Department said that approximately 200 of its members were operating on the scene at the 19-storey building in the Bronx where the fire started around 11 AM on Sunday.
The incident comes days after an apartment fire in Philadelphia killed 12, with eight children among the dead.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams termed it a “tragedy beyond measure”.
“We’ve lost 19 of our neighbours today… Join me in praying for those we lost, especially the 9 innocent young lives that were cut short,” Adams said in a tweet on Sunday.
Over 30 people were seriously injured in the incident.
Adams said that the building housed a largely Muslim population, with many immigrants from Africa’s Gambia.
“This is a horrific, horrific, painful moment for the City of New York. The impact of this fire is going to really bring a level of pain and despair to our city… This is going to be one of the worst fires we have witnessed during modern times,” Adams said at a news conference.
Governor of New York state Kathy Hochul said the city is “in shock”.
“It’s impossible to go into that room where scores of families who are in such grief, who are in pain, to see it in a mother’s eyes as I held her, who lost her entire family. It’s hard to fathom what they’re going through,” Hochul said as she joined Adams to provide an update on the apartment fire in the Bronx.
The Governor said that she will establish a victims’ compensation fund for the individuals affected by the fire and to help them find new housing and for burial costs.
Mayor Adams said that over 32 people sustained life-threatening injuries, nine serious injuries and 22 injuries that are non-life-threatening.
New York City Fire Department Commissioner Daniel Nigro described the incident as “tragic” and said that units arrived within three minutes for a call of a fire in the duplex apartment.
“They were met in the hallway with this fire, very heavy smoke, very heavy fire. Units pushed in. The smoke extended the entire height of the building, which is very unusual. Members found victims on every floor and in stairwells and were taking them out in cardiac and respiratory arrest,” he said.
The 32 people were transported to hospitals in life-threatening condition.
“That is unprecedented in our city,” Nigro said.
A “malfunctioning electric space heater” was the source of the fire, he said, adding that the heater was in the bedroom of an apartment and the fire consumed the room and then the entire apartment.
Victims were found in stairways on every floor of the building, many in cardiac arrest. The injuries were predominantly from smoke inhalation, he said.
Firefighters kept attempting to save people from the building despite running out of air tanks, Nigro said.
Some of the residents who were trying to leave the building could not “escape because of the volume of smoke,” he said.
Nigro said that the door to the fire apartment was left open which allowed the fire and smoke to spread. “This fire took its toll on our city.”
The Fire Department issued several messages on social media urging citizens to always close the door when escaping a fire.
“Closing the door saves lives,” the message said.
Authorities said the fire appeared to have been caused by a space heater in one of the apartments.
The residential apartment is 50 years old and has 120 units, CNN reported, citing building records.
There have not been any major building violations or complaints listed against the building, it said, adding that past minor violations were rectified by the property and there were no structural violations listed.
Meanwhile, mayor Adams said that one priority will be to make sure that Islamic funeral and burial rites are respected and another will be to seek Muslim leaders to connect with the residents.
The names of people who request government assistance will not be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Adams said.
“We want people to be comfortable in coming forward, and it’s imperative that we connect with those on the ground to make sure they get that message and that word out,” he said.
Christina Farrell, first deputy commissioner of NYC emergency management, told CNN’s Phil Mattingly Sunday that residents who lived in the apartment building are now being housed at a middle school next door.
“We have all the residents here. We’ve been able to give them food, a warm space, water, any short-term needs that they had. People brought their pets and so we are in the process of finding people to shelter this evening.
“We work with the Red Cross, we have hotel rooms and have other resources available. And so we will be making sure every family has a safe, warm space to sleep in tonight,” Farrell added.