It was a frigid January day when a malfunctioning space heater caused a fire in a high-rise apartment building in the Bronx.
The fire was small, but it produced massive plumes of smoke that filled the 19-story building’s hallways and stairwells. Due to a broken fire door that was left open instead of closed, it took just minutes for the entire building to become a death trap for the residents inside.
The fire is now considered the deadliest fire that’s happened in New York City in more than 3 decades, killing 17 people and injuring dozens more. Single mother-of-two Fatima Wood was one of hundreds of residents struggling to get out of the building as smoke clogged the halls. As she tried to carry her two young children down the crowded stairwell from her apartment on the ninth floor, a stranger appeared out of nowhere and asked if she needed help.
The man is Mahammed Keita, and he lives on the building’s top floor. He was fleeing for his life and had already made it down 10 flights of stairs when he saw Fatima and her daughters. He knew instantly that he couldn’t just leave them there to fend for themselves, so he grabbed 3-year-old Kween and took off down the stairs.
“As soon as I got down, the kid was cold, she didn’t have enough clothes,” said Mahammed. “So I took off my jacket and I wrapped her in my jacket.” Once the child was warm, he handed her off to a waiting ambulance. They were taken to St. Barnabas Hospital and released later that night.
Firefighters helped Fatima and her other child make it out not long after Mahammed and Kween got out. The family was reunited in the hospital, and Fatima shudders to think of what could have happened if Mahammed hadn’t stopped to help.
“I cried all day, even when we got here (to the hospital) and we finally see her, I was still crying because it’s so traumatizing,” she said, adding “it could’ve been way worse” had Mahammed not been there.
Mahammed said he, too, was shaken to his core by the experience. “I was sitting down, shaking. People were just going through, they couldn’t breathe, they were performing CPR, cardiac arrest,” he recalled. “I’ve never seen something like it, so I was just shaking the whole time.”
When asked what made him pause his own escape to help, Mahammed says he was “just trying to do the right thing.”
Many people might have been so consumed by fear that they had tunnel vision, but this man kept his eyes open and didn’t hesitate to lend a hand.
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