Many of those who died in the Bronx apartment fire were from West Africa
Updated January 12, 2022 at 4:03 PM ET
Haja Dukureh and her husband Haji Dukuray left Gambia more than a decade ago. They made a new life for themselves in New York City where Haja worked 12-hour shifts as a home health aide, and Haji had a job at a local fried chicken restaurant. They sent money back to their families in West Africa, including Haja's mother and siblings.
"They're all depending on her," Fatoumata Dukureh said of her niece, Haja.
In their apartment in the Bronx, they raised 12-year-old Mustapha, 11-year-old Mariam and 5-year-old Fatoumata, who many called Fatima, according to Fatoumata Dukureh, who spoke with NPR.
All three children, along with Haja and Haji, were among the 17 people who died after a devastating fire broke out in their Bronx apartment building on Sunday.
According to the New York City Police Department, the victims ranged from 2 to 50 years old. Many are said to have been immigrants from West Africa, like Haja and Haji's family, as well as a part of the local Muslim community.
Gambia's foreign ministry said in a statement on Facebook that it was "deeply saddened" to report that 11 Gambians, including six children, were killed in Sunday's blaze.
The NYPD published the full list of names of the victims early Wednesday:
A space heater in a unit on a lower level of the building is believed to have started the blaze. A spokesperson for New York City's medical examiner's office indicated that for all 17 victims, the cause of death was smoke inhalation and the deaths have been ruled accidental.
Haja Dukureh's aunt, Fatoumata, said she last spoke to her niece on the phone the night before the fire on Sunday morning.
A vigil for the victims was held Tuesday evening. Many families are now struggling to prepare for their loved ones' funerals.
Fatoumata Dukureh said she is now struggling with the loss of her niece, who was also her best friend.
"Just a good person. Good heart. Clean heart," she said.
A community comes together after a tragedy
Other members of the West African community who live around the 19-story apartment building have come together offering money, clothes, food and prayers to families of the dead and the survivors.
Several of the victims were patrons of a local mosque — Masjid-ur-Rahmah — which stands just a few blocks from the site of the fire.
"This is the same people who were praying with us in this center and the same children who passed away — they used to come here every Saturday and Sunday," said the mosque's imam, Musa Kabba, who spoke with NPR's member station WNYC. "It's going to be a little bit hard, but we will be able to face it."
Many of Kabba's congregants stemmed specifically from Gambia, Niger and Mali.
Momodou Sawaneh, the founder of the Gambian Youth Organization, said the building has been a sanctuary for the Gambian community in particular.
"I've known people who have been here for 30 years, 40 years," he told WNYC. "This building is an identity of Gambian community, so that's why it's very tragic."
The Gambian Youth Organization has also been raising money for their community. A GoFundMe page created by the group has raised more than $1 million so far for the victims.
Individual fundraisers have popped up online, detailing the loss of several members of individual families. Efforts to contact these campaigns and other family members have been unsuccessful.
Nhuma Darame created a GoFundMe page for her cousin, who lost her mother and three siblings in the fire. She wrote on the page that her cousin was at work when she heard that a fire broke out in her building.
Darame's cousin, according to the page, lost her 50-year-old mother, 12-year-old brother, and two sisters, who were 19 and 21 years old. A 16-year-old brother was rescued and in the hospital.
"As a community, it is our duty to come together during times [like] this and help one another in any way that we can," Darame wrote.
As of Wednesday morning, the page had raised more than $120,000 for the family.
The loss has been deeply felt outside of New York.
The Gambian ambassador, Dawda Docka Fadera, traveled from Washington, D.C., to New York City to stand with Mayor Eric Adams at a news conference about the fire.
"I think 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," Docka Fadera told CNN. "It's so sad that this horrific and tragic incident took so many lives, and left many people fighting for their lives."
The impact was felt far away in Gambia, as well.
Adama Barrow, the country's president, issued a statement declaring "profound sadness" at the huge loss of life. He said he is continuing to follow developments on the blaze.
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