Nfamara Kebe tears up as he describes the deadly fire in the Bronx apartment building where several of his family members lived.
At least one of his relatives was killed in Sunday’s blaze, Kebe says. And his nephew’s 2-year-old son is hospitalized and fighting for his life.
The family is hoping for the best for the boy, he says, but bracing for the worst.
“It’s too much,” says Kebe.
And Kebe, who came to the United States from Guinea 35 years ago, says it’s not just his own relatives he’s worrying about. The building and neighborhood are home to many West African immigrants. And to him, they’re family, too.
“We are one community,” he says. “When we meet here, we are the same family.”
A day after the blaze, which officials say killed 17 people and injured dozens more, volunteers are rallying to help, survivors are reeling and family members in the close-knit immigrant community are still searching for loved ones and desperate for answers.
“I’m totally worried and devastated — not me alone, but the whole community and the family at large. Everybody’s worried. We don’t know what happened. … That’s the toughest thing – not knowing,” says Yusupha Jawara, who spoke with 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 he learned of the fire, but they’re not answering their phones.
Authorities hadn’t released the victims’ names as of 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’s working to find out more about the victims and has been meeting with survivors who’d managed to escape the building.
“They have horrific stories,” he says. “It was very sad. … I have never seen this in my life. This is so tragic. It’s really so huge.”
She hopes the death toll won’t climb
Kujegi Camara, 27, spent Monday afternoon sorting through donated clothes, toys and other items at the Gambian Youth Organization, which is just a few blocks away from the building.
Everyone in the community, she says, knows people who were affected by the fire.
Several of her extended family members 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. Though she’s moved elsewhere in the Bronx, she came back to volunteer after hearing the news.
“I’m just hoping the number (of victims) doesn’t increase,” she said.
Camara said she’s wondering whether underlying issues in the building could have played a role in the blaze.
Officials have said the fire began with a malfunctioning space heater in a bedroom, and that they’re looking into the building’s fire alarms and doors.
The doors in the building were supposed to close automatically, but the door of the apartment where the blaze began, as well as the stairwell door on the 15th floor, were not functioning properly, New York Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said Monday.
“Our people deserve much more,” Camara says.
The building was a ‘first port of call’ for many immigrants
The 19-story apartment building had been a beloved home for many immigrants from Gambia for years, the West African country’s ambassador told CNN.
“A lot of Gambians who came here, they stayed there before they moved anywhere else. This was kind of a first port of call, this building. It’s a building Gambians have a lot of attachment to,” Fadera said. “It’s so sad that this horrific and tragic incident took 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 says has devastated a close-knit community not only in New York, but in West Africa as well.
“Gambia is a very small country, 2 million people. Everybody knows everybody. We are all related. It’s a shock in our country right now,” he said.
His family got stuck as smoke filled the halls
Emergency vehicles remained outside the building Monday. The fire’s devastation was clearly visible even from the street – a large number of windows were broken, and a curtain fluttered in the wind through one of them.
Mamadou Wague says he’s still reeling from the shock. On Sunday, he says, the sound of his children screaming jolted him awake.
Wague lives on the third floor of the building with his eight kids, who range in age from 6 months to 18 years old.
Wague yelled for everyone to get out, but then realized he had to return to get his 8-year-old daughter, who was still in the apartment.
His family wasn’t able to flee 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 down 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 his family’s belongings.
“Everything is gone in my apartment,” he said. “Everything is gone.”
Now the family is staying with friends in the Bronx, he says. He doesn’t know what to do next.
They’re not sure they want to go back
While some displaced families hunker down with friends, others are taking shelter at nearby hotels.
World Central Kitchen set up in one hotel’s community room Monday, providing water, snacks and meals donated from local restaurants. Other volunteers went door-to-door, asking if the families needed anything. Boxes of pizza arrived midday, delighting some of the children who had fled.
Several residents of the building said they were not eager to go back, voicing concerns about their safety.
Jessika Valdez, 38, says she got a call 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, even though Valdez says they forgot to bring her eyeglasses and any clothing with them when they fled.
Luna still smells like smoke. And Valdez knows everything else in their 18th-floor apartment will, too.
She’s concerned about the safety of the apartment building, noting she didn’t see any sprinklers go off during the fire.
But Valdez says a more important question is weighing on her mind about the building they left behind.
“It’s literally a grave,” she says.
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.