Bronx fire: moment of anguish when woman drops her dog in smoke-filled stairwell

NEWS AND COMMENT-THE BRONX, NEW YORK, USA: You might have read about the horrendous West Bronx fire in which at least 19 people lost their lives with dozens injured. It’s a tall building. Some residents had lived there all their lives. Smoke inhalation was the killer. The lottery of life was dependent upon whether the firefighters got to you first or the smoke did.

The story of Sandra Clayton, 61, is one in which she won the lottery of life while her dog, a two-year-old Maltese Shih Tzu lost it. She heard neighbours screaming in the hallway: “Get out! Get out!”

In other apartments residents were seeing smoke coming under their front door. Some did the classic Towering Inferno response by putting a wet towel at the base of the door to stop the smoke coming in. They decided to wait for the firefighters to come. Others decided to get out to try and make their way down the stairwell.

Of course, the stairwell was full of acrid, chemical-smelling black smoke. It was also full of people tripping and falling over each other, unable to see.

Sandra Clayton was in that stairwell. She decided to go and get out. She dashed for the stairs. She scooped up her dog Mocha. She decided to use her cellphone as a torch but fumbled because she was in shock. She felt her way instead and groped forwards down the stairs. Other tenants were doing the same thing.

She heard panicked cries and wailing echoing up and down the stairwell. She said:

“I just ran down the steps as much as I could but people was falling all over me, screaming,” she recounted from St. Barnabas Hospital, where she was treated for smoke inhalation.”

She fell three times, she said. In their panic, others trampled over her. Tragically, she had to brace herself from falling and in doing so she let go of Mocha.

She said: “I tried feeling for her, but there was so much smoke,” her voice growing emotional. “I had to save my own life.”

She pressed on down. She was terrified because “It was so horrific”. She gasped for air and made her way out of the building but with tears rolling down her face she wondered what had happened to Mocha in that dark and dangerous stairwell.

With great sadness, she found out that Mocha had died of smoke inhalation. She had been suffocated by that putrid chemical-smelling smoke.

It seems that this ever-present decision had to be made by residents under these deadly circumstances. Do you stay in your apartment and wait for the firefighters or do you take a risk and go down those stairs and get out? Some stayed and survived. Some went down the stairs and survived also. It was the lottery of life.

One lucky survivor, Joseph Brannigan, was in his fifth-floor apartment when smoke began to pour into his home before 11 AM. He was with his nephew who said that they should get out. He thought there was too much smoke in the hallway. They decided to go. As they tried to get out of the apartment his nephew grabbed his hand. He then let go and couldn’t find is nephew. He collapsed on the floor of his hallway.

He said: “We won the lottery of life, the big jackpot”. Firefighters arrived before he suffocated.

Mocha wasn’t so lucky.

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