A line of black hearses began pulling up outside the doors of the Islamic Cultural Center in the Bronx just after 10 a.m. on Sunday. They maneuvered past throngs of distraught mourners who had flocked to the mosque to say a final goodbye to friends, children, parents and cousins killed in a fire that took the lives of 17 members of a close-knit Gambian community.
Indoors, women consoled each other in a second-floor prayer space as the men gathered downstairs. Outside, two tents were filled with families and hundreds of their neighbors watching the funeral service on a livestream.
Aminata Sillah, 42, had arrived early. She laid a blue prayer rug on the ground in the frigid morning air, tugging anxiously at her boots.
Her aunt, Fatoumata Drammeh, was among those who died on Jan. 9 when an electric heater set off the fire and acrid smoke filled the apartment building on East 181st Street, suffocating people as they tried to flee the 19-story complex. It was the city’s deadliest blaze in decades.
Ms. Drammeh’s three children were among the eight children who died and among the 15 people being honored during Sunday’s communal funeral service.
“I’m devastated,” Ms. Sillah said.
The crowds were so tightly packed and the mosque so overflowing with mourners that the imam had to shout again and again into the microphone, asking people to clear the path for the coffins and reminding congregants of fire hazards. On the first floor, male mourners squeezed back against the walls.
Then the 15 coffins came in, draped in black velvet cloth and held aloft by more than two dozen men. Each had different golden embroidery at the hem. Among the adult-sized coffins were six much smaller ones.
As one was brought down gently onto the carpeted ground, Haji Dukuray sighed heavily, his eyes puffy. He had lost his wife, Haja; his nephew, Haji; and their three young children, Fatoumata, 5; Mariam, 11; and Mustapha, 12.
“All this innocence, these young kids,” Mr. Dukuray, 60, said. “They have no business being here.”
Elected officials including Mayor Eric Adams; the state attorney general, Letitia James; and Senator Chuck Schumer sat in the front row in front of the caskets at the packed funeral service.
Sheikh Musa Drammeh, the leader of the Islamic Cultural Center, didn’t hold back his anger, and his voice rose sharply as he directed his words to them.
“If these people lived in Midtown Manhattan, this wouldn’t have happened. They would not have needed space heaters. The conditions in which they lived in the Bronx caused their death,” he said, turning toward the officials and adding: “Mr. Mayor, you heard? Mr. Schumer, you heard?”
“We are No. 1 for everything bad” in the Bronx, he said, as the crowd agreed loudly. “They will never achieve the American dream because they lived in the Bronx. Their families will never see them again because they lived in the Bronx. We are having this funeral today because they lived in the Bronx.”
Mr. Adams rose and said that the families had his commitment as the mayor to give them support.
“What is happening here in the Bronx, it is what is happening across our city, where the communities with Black, brown and immigrant people are,” he said. “It’s time to end those inequalities so we don’t have our babies and our families torn apart by tragedy. The American dream for too many burned in that fire.”
As the service was held, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced $2 million in state funding to assist tenants with replacing lost or damaged personal belongings and with rent, relocation and loss of income because of the death of a family member.
During the service, Imam Musa Kabba said he was struggling to control his emotions as he listed the names of families — Dukuray, Drammeh, Jambang, Konteh, Tunkara, Toure — decimated by the blaze.
“When the Lord asks for something, we have no choice but to agree,” he said, adding, “I’m trying to control myself.”
Family members started to quietly sob.
“My heart is done,” said Yahya Sankara, 33, who lost his sister and two nephews.