The fire spread through every floor of a five-story Bronx apartment building within a matter of minutes, city officials said. It is considered to be the deadliest residential fire in decades in the city.
Those who died Thursday night included girls ages 1, 2 and 7, and a boy of unknown age.
Mayor Bill de Blasio told CNN Friday that other victims were still fighting for their lives following the event, but first responders rescued at least 12 people from death inside the apartment building.
The fire, the cause of which is unknown, has been called "historic in its magnitude" because of the number of lives lost, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said. Aside from the September 11 attacks on the city, it was the worst fire since a Bronx social club went ablaze in 1990, killing 87 people.
"Our hearts go out to every person who lost a loved one here and everyone who is fighting for their lives," Nigro added.
The flames broke out on the ground floor of the apartment structure around 7 p.m. and demolished the nearly century-old building, which is located near the Bronx Zoo.
Roughly 170 firefighters responded to the fire, working in 15-degree weather to rescue about a dozen residents from the building. Some tenants, a mix of native New Yorkers and Latino and African immigrants, climbed down fire escapes to exit the building. Others in the 20-unit building never made it out of their rooms as the flames spread too quickly.
Witnesses close to the scene told the Associated Press they saw burned bodies being carried on stretchers and watched young girls who escaped standing barefoot and without coats in the chilling weather.
Thierno Diallo, 59, a security guard who lives in a ground floor apartment said he was asleep when he heard banging on the door. He wasn't aware of the danger at first.
"Only when I heard people screaming, 'There's a fire in the building!'" he said. "I heard somebody, 'Oh! Fire! Fire! Fire!'" Diallo ran outside in his bathrobe, jacket and sandals.
Twum Bredu, 61, arrived in the neighborhood looking for his brother, who had been staying with a family in the apartment building. The husband, wife and four children he was visiting got out, but there was no word about his brother.
"I've been calling his phone, it's ringing, but nobody picks up," Bredu said. "He was in his room, and we don't know what happened."
Photo credit: Getty / Kena Betancur