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An investigation continues into why safety doors failed to close when fire broke out in a New York high-rise, allowing thick smoke to rise through the tower and kill 17 people.

The fire, the city’s deadliest blaze in more than three decades, erupted when a space heater malfunctioned in the 19-story building in the Bronx, fire officials said. Though the flames damaged just a small part of the building, smoke poured throughout the building.

Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro told the Huffington Post that the apartment’s front door and a door on the 15th floor should have been self-closing to stop the spread of smoke, but the doors remained fully open. It was not clear if the doors failed mechanically or if they had been manually disabled.  

The cloud of smoke prevented some residents from escaping and incapitated others as they tried to evacuate.

Glenn Corbett, a fire science professor at John Jay College in New York City, told Huff Post that closed doors are vital to containing fire and smoke, especially in buildings that do not have automatic sprinkler systems.

“It’s pretty remarkable that the failure of one door could lead to how many deaths we had here, but that’s the reality of it,” Corbett said. “That one door played a critical role in allowing the fire to spread and the smoke and heat to spread vertically through the building.”

An investigation was underway to determine exactly how the fire spread and whether anything could have been done to prevent or contain the blaze, Nigro said.

The ownership group reported maintenance staff fixed the lock on the front door of the apartment in which the fire started in July and, while doing that repair, and the apartment’s self-closing door worked at that time.

However, a database maintained by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development shows New York City inspectors have issued violations for problems with self-closing doors on five apartments in the building and one opening to a stairwell over a decade. These records show the housing group corrected all violations.

Building codes required sprinklers in the building’s trash compactor and laundry room but nowhere else because it has concrete ceilings and floors.