Why a Closed Door Can Save Lives During a Fire

After a fire in a Bronx high-rise killed 17 people, fire officials are focusing on simple safety measures that can help in the earliest moments of a blaze.

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By Nicholas Fandos, Ali Watkins and Ashley Southall

Fire officials say that the lethal smoke that killed 17 people in a Bronx high-rise fire on Sunday probably spread so rapidly because one simple tool for containing just such a blaze failed amid the panic to escape.

Mamadou Wague, who lived with his family in the third-floor duplex where the fire broke out, told The New York Post that in his haste, he forgot to close the apartment door behind him. A self-closing mechanism then malfunctioned, clearing a path for smoke to begin filling the 19-story tower.

Here is why fire officials say that closing the door can be one of the most critical actions people can take to stop the spread and save lives when confronting a fire.

Why does closing the door make a difference?

Fires feed on oxygen. Daniel Madrzykowski, a director of research for the Underwriters Laboratories’ Fire Safety Research Institute, said that when a door is left open it provides a source of air that “essentially acts as a pump” fueling the flames.

Closing doors can cut off the pump, slowly starving a fire of much of that fuel. It can also provide one of the most effective barriers to temporarily inhibit the spread of flames and smoke, giving firefighters crucial time to respond.

“Closing the door limits smoke spread and limits the oxygen that is available for combustion,” Dr. Madrzykowski said.

Those benefits are why New York requires that apartment doors in any building with three or more units be outfitted with special hinges to close on their own, and why the city encourages residents to close the doors to bedrooms while they sleep.

A public service announcement produced by the Fire Department and NY1, urging residents to “close the door” in case of fire, won an Emmy in 2000, the year after a pair of deadly fires in city towers.

Still, problems with open doors have persisted.

The city passed legislation increasing oversight over the doors in 2018, in the aftermath of another residential fire in the Bronx that killed 13 people the previous year. During the fiscal year that ended in June, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development issued 22,000 violations for self-closing doors, 18,000 of which have since been closed as corrected.

So what happened in the Bronx?

City officials said that the fire in the Bronx started when an electrical space heater in a third-floor duplex burst into flames Sunday morning. Residents in the unit rushed out, but the self-closing door to the apartment failed to shut behind them.

The open door allowed oxygen to flow in, feeding the growing fire, and allowed thick, heavy smoke to escape into the rest of the building.

Fire officials said they found that the fire had actually barely escaped the apartment before it was put out. (The tower did not have building-wide sprinklers.) But when a door to the stairwell was left open on the 15th floor, it created “a flue effect, like a chimney,” a Fire Department spokesman said, rapidly pulling smoke upward.

Residents on higher floors trying to escape grew sick from smoke inhalation, some of them fatally. Others frantically struggled to stop smoke from seeping through the cracks under their doors.

Twin Parks North West

At least 17 people were killed in a fire that began at 11 a.m. on Sunday in an apartment on the building’s third floor. Fire department officials said open doors caused smoked to flood the stairwell, possibly preventing residents from escaping.

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