‘Words can’t describe my pain’: NYC schools grapple with grief and loss from Bronx fire

Two people in winter clothing embrace next to a memorial for the victims of a fatal fire in a Bronx apartment. The memorial is adorned with flowers, candles, and photographs of the victims.
Two people embrace next to a memorial for the victims of a fatal fire in a Bronx apartment. Since the blaze, school communities are grappling with the loss and grief that dozens of students, their families and educators are experiencing. (Reema Amin / Chalkbeat)

Channel Alvarez clutched a bouquet of pink carnations at the makeshift memorial on the fence between her middle school and the Bronx high-rise where a fire had killed 17 people, including one of her classmates, Seydou Toure. 

Channel, an eighth grader at M.S. 391, pointed to his picture surrounded by brightly colored flowers. She couldn’t shake the thought that 12-year-old Seydou was so close to her own age. 

“He was a nice boy, he was friendly,” Channel said Thursday. “He liked to play. Every time when he walked through the hallway, he said, ‘Good morning.’” 

The Sunday blaze, sparked by a space heater, tore through an apartment building known as Twin Parks North West and is considered the worst fire New York City has seen in three decades. So far, eight children are among the dead. About a dozen people remain hospitalized, according to reports.  

Multiple school communities are grappling with how to respond as the area’s tight-knit community, largely of Muslims from Gambia and other West African countries, is reeling from grief, loss of shelter or both. Six Bronx schools that serve families affected by the fire are getting extra counseling support, according to the education department. Democracy Prep, a charter school network, did not lose any students, but said it serves 11 students who were impacted in some way. The school is raising money for victims.

Community leaders report that many families are fearful of returning to the apartment building, and some may need to switch schools. Still, in the days and weeks to come, school may be the only place children feel a sense of normalcy, several people echoed.

“Public school needs to do the best for them, whatever they can,” said Imam Musa Kabba, who leads a mosque that has become a key gathering place for many of the families displaced by the fire.

Care packages and grief counseling

Kabba’s mosque is near P.S. 85, one of the schools serving children from the Twin Parks North West. Between that school and nearby M.S. 391, as many as 40 children were affected by the fire, said Joahan Suarez, senior program manager for Replications, a community-based organization that partners with both schools to provide wraparound services.

Suarez’s organization has made care packages with toiletry kits and clothes for displaced families. But their biggest focus is ensuring that their mental health professionals, including a psychologist, are helping the schools check in with students and families, giving them a space to talk. School counselors have been calling some of the students each morning. They’re checking on their sleep habits. They’re making sure they’re eating. 

“There are children who are saying they’re having a hard time sleeping,” Suarez said. “They’re even having a hard time having a desire to talk to their friends right now.”

Some of P.S. 85’s students from the building returned this week — saying that school is the one place they “have felt a little safety” — but others are not ready, Suarez said. 

Volunteers in winter clothing prepare donations of clothes, food, and other items for people displaced by a fire at an apartment building nearby in the Bronx. (Ed Jones / AFP via Getty Images)

Schools this year already needed to take extra care in ensuring that students feel safe and heard after the loss and isolation that they have experienced over nearly two years of the public health crisis, officials and community leaders said. Now, the devastating fire comes during a difficult school year, made even more chaotic after the winter break amid a surge in COVID infections. 

“Something we talk about often is compound grief, and that is, our children have suffered so much already. And so this is just another blow to them, to our school community, to our neighborhoods,” said Dr. Roger Ball, head of the education department’s social work team in the Bronx.

“And so part of our responsibility to them long term — not just now, but long term — is to ensure that we are present with them, that all of our kids are connected to caring adults, to make sure that we have the mental health support within our schools community.”

Ball’s team has been working with six Bronx schools to provide grief counseling and check in with children and, in some cases, their families. They’ve seen many kids who were close to peers or relatives who died. Ball noted that grief can come “in waves” and children may display it in vastly different ways — some may laugh when talking about the fire, while others may want to be alone. His team plans to provide extra support to schools who need it in the coming weeks. 

The education department is working on other logistics, such as school reassignments or new bus routes for displaced students, said Suzan Sumer, an education department spokesperson. 

Educators contending with loss

Mahamed Keita, a substitute teacher and technology support staffer at Bronx International High School, was credited with saving a 3-year-old girl from the building. He has been unable to return to work after losing his own 16th floor apartment — the first he’s ever rented on his own.

On Sunday, as Keita waded through smoke-filled hallways at Twin Parks, he bumped into a mother with two young girls. He carried the younger daughter out of the building, covered her in his jacket, and rode an ambulance with her to make sure she was OK, he said. 

The little girl was fine, but Keita received oxygen and was hospitalized for six hours.

Mahamed Keita, a substitute teacher at Bronx International High School, was credited with saving the young girl pictured above from the deadly highrise blaze in the Bronx that left 17 people dead. (Courtesy of Mahamed Keita)

Familiar with so many residents who died, he’s still processing the tragedy, he said. Separately, he must see a specialist for the ongoing effects of smoke inhalation. His landlord told residents they could return, but when Keita did, he found the hallways still filled with smoke and his apartment caked in ashes. 

He’s staying at a hotel with other residents, where they’ve been told they can remain until Jan. 24. He’s frustrated that they’ve received no answers from the city on what happens after that. 

Thankfully, he said, his principal said there’s no rush to return to work while he’s figuring everything out. Keita said the principal has visited him a few times and has called to check in.

“The school has really been helping me a lot,” Keita said. “They’re all calling me.”

Michelle Gabriel, a high school teacher at a Harlem charter school, was caught by surprise on Monday when she discovered three of her students had either been displaced or lost loved ones. One of them, a Gambian student who lost six cousins, three aunts and two uncles to the fire, attended class on Tuesday because she wanted to remain focused on school, Gabriel said. 

Gabriel upended her lesson plan for the day and instead asked students to write letters to the victims. The student who lost relatives — who Gabriel said has requested anonymity — drafted a 974-word note for Mayor Eric Adams, raising concerns about the conditions of the building and whether the city cares for its low-income, immigrant communities. 

The space heater that caused the fire has highlighted concerns over adequate heat in the building. Additionally, a door that should have automatically closed failed to do so and allowed smoke to spread. Residents had logged building complaints about both problems in recent years, but city records showed the issues had been resolved. 

“Where will survivors live? How will you, the city, and the government help these families? And what is the next step towards a better future?” the student wrote in the letter. “Like many others, I have cried every single day since that fire. Words can’t describe my pain. I have little hope due to the government failing us over and over again.” 

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