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A Smoking Gun

Illustration by Peishan Yu

On Sunday, January 9, 2022, a five-alarm fire in an apartment complex in the Fordham Heights neighborhood of the Bronx killed 17 people. Smoke rapidly filled the hallways and central stairwell of the Twin Parks North West tower in what was one of the deadliest fires in New York City history. A subsequent investigation revealed that the fire had been set off by a space heater in one of the building’s units—tenants had long complained to the building’s management about low temperatures, leading many to resort to unsafe heating options. On the day of the fire, numerous apartment and stairwell doors that were designed to automatically close had stayed open; the stairwells were narrow and lacked a ventilation system; the fire alarm system, although activated, was known to erroneously go off, causing some residents to “not take [it] seriously.” Both the New York City Council and New York State legislature ultimately passed new fire safety regulations following Twin Parks, but they came too late for the building’s residents.

The Twin Parks fire is not an isolated incident: Structural fires and heating complaints are disproportionately common in Black and Latino neighborhoods like Fordham Heights. Nearly all of the Twin Parks fire victims were Gambian immigrants, with the tower itself being an affordable housing complex. The connection between the fire and those it affected is not insignificant: Compared to the national average, Black people are twice as likely to die or become injured in residential fires. Even further, states where a large percentage of the population is Black—notably Mississippi, Louisiana, and the District of Columbia—record the largest differences between white and Black fire death rates. 

Many large-scale fires are characterized as “accidental,” when in reality they are anything but. “Accidental” fire deaths are the downstream manifestation of the same systemic racism that has fueled direct acts of fire-related violence against Black communities. We must recognize that the destructive and fatal fires affecting Black Americans cannot be separated from the oppression, both social and governmental, that they have experienced for centuries. 

Throughout history, fires have been used to target Black communities in violent demonstrations of white supremacy. Between May 31 and June 1, 1921, white mobs looted and burned Black businesses and residences in Greenwood, a wealthy, predominantly Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in what has become known as the Tulsa Race Massacre. According to the Red Cross, around 1,256 houses were destroyed, along with churches, a hospital, a library, and other establishments. By the end of the riots, the white mobs had caused up to 300 deaths and razed 35 city blocks. News of the tragedy was intentionally suppressed in local media and police archives for decades. 

During the Civil Rights Movement, Black churches played a central role in the cultivation of cultural and political organizing and served as meeting places for Black activists. White supremacists often violently targeted these spaces, using fire bombs and arson to kill Black churchgoers and strip communities of valued safe havens. Infamously, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, killing four Black girls. The government did not prosecute the first perpetrator until 1977, with two more prosecutions following in the 2000s. One survivor, Sarah Collins Rudolph, continues to demand compensation from the state of Alabama—to no avail. 

In the decades since, fire has remained a highly visible display of power and social control. In 1985, the Philadelphia Police Department bombed a West Philadelphia rowhouse—killing 11 people and burning down 61 homes—in an effort to target MOVE, a radical Black separatist organization. In 2021, a Black firefighter sued the city of New York for wrongful suspension after he refused to use water hoses to “assist in controlling [BLM] protesters.” The state’s role in these events, coupled with the simultaneous deprivation of other community resources (including slower 911 response times in low-income neighborhoods), is a direct reinforcement of Black positionality as second-class citizens. 

In contrast, the Twin Parks fire deaths and other “accidental” fire-related fatalities more implicitly demonstrate the state’s continuing role in perpetuating Black oppression. As author Jesse Singer described in an interview with TIME, the term “accidental deaths” tends to focus on human error, thereby ignoring the larger systemic issues and racial disparities at play. Outdated building codes and fire safety rules are disproportionately found in Black neighborhoods and public housing. In discussions of fire-related tragedies, examining the broader circumstances—specifically questions of how the state and other regulatory bodies could have intervened—reveals how they often occur as a result of intentional neglect. For instance, in the case of the Twin Parks tower, experts have emphasized that routine building maintenance and enforcement of fire-safety codes could have prevented the deaths entirely.

Black people are overrepresented in home fire death statistics, making up 24 percent of deaths despite comprising 13 percent of the general population. This can be linked in part to more general issues of systemic poverty in Black neighborhoods. As one example, four days before the Twin Parks fire, 12 people were killed when a Philadelphia home burned down. Further investigations revealed that the city’s affordable housing crisis had confined 18 people to the overcrowded four-bedroom unit—a huge fire hazard. 

Many fire-related deaths are preventable. Governmental and policy interventions must address more immediate problems like outdated building codes and lack of regulation—particularly pertaining to access to fire escapes and working sprinklers or fire alarms. However, fires need to be framed as more than just “accidental” in public discussion and perception. To label fires in the Black community as accidental without critically questioning the systemic factors at play absolves policymakers of any blame and shifts the burden of destruction to the actions of individuals. 

Large-scale fires in Black communities—both of the past and present—should be framed in the context of Black oppression more broadly. Statistics show that Black neighborhoods disproportionately suffer from subpar sanitation services, poor water quality, and higher rates of noise pollution. It is not enough to simply acknowledge that tragedies like Twin Parks have occurred; the fact that access to and upkeep of public resources are generally worse in Black neighborhoods needs to be directly confronted. These fires have never been accidental.