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Mourners gather for funeral of Bronx fire victims

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A week ago, a fire in a New York City apartment building left 17 residents dead. Officials have said a space heater was to blame. The building is in the Bronx. Most of the residents are immigrants or have roots in West Africa. Today, a funeral was held for most of the 17 victims as the - at the Islamic Cultural Center in the Bronx. And one theme raised repeatedly at the service was that this was a preventable tragedy.

Sally Herships was there, and she's with us now. Sally, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: If you would just start by telling us the scene at the funeral today.

HERSHIPS: Yeah. It was a quiet Sunday morning. It was so cold. It was the kind of weather that has you stamping your feet to stay warm. So the streets were pretty empty. But as soon as you got within about two blocks of the Islamic Cultural Center, you could see crowds, all these people trying to squeeze into the center. The community had really come out to show its support. There were way too many mourners to fit inside. The police had shut down nearby streets. And there were these big white overflow tents set up with giant TV screens to watch the ceremony outside. And in keeping with Islamic tradition, there was one tent set up for women and one for men that got - things got more crowded, and that division evaporated a little bit.

MARTIN: So tell me a bit more about who was there. Who was filling those tents?

HERSHIPS: There were hundreds of people there, the kind of community members you would expect at a tragedy of this size. People were there to pay their respects. But there was another really common theme. Viola Plummer is with a local Black human rights organization. We were in the same tent. And she said structural racism was the problem here and that the problem is not new.

VIOLA PLUMMER: Today we are talking about environmental racism. Tomorrow we'll be talking about the health care delivery system, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

HERSHIPS: Plummer said she's seen the same problems in Haiti after earthquakes, Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. And just this past fall in New York, 15 people died from the flooding. Some were trapped in basement apartments. And many were people of color or low income.

MARTIN: Tell me a bit more, if you would, about the people who spoke at the service, like the officials, for example. Did they strike a similar tone?

HERSHIPS: They did. Sheikh Musa Drammeh - he's from Gambia and a community organizer. And he spoke today and repeatedly used the word traumatized. He made a point of saying that he wanted the media and politicians to see all of the caskets because we don't want this to happen again. And he said people shouldn't have to live in dilapidated apartments or rely on space heaters. And that's why the decision was made to open this funeral to the public. And he drew a particular comparison between the death of Emmett Till and today's events.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHEIKH MUSA DRAMMEH: On September 3, 1955, an educator, an activist, a lady conducted. And she told the church, I want the casket of my son to remain open. I want the world to know the condition in which we live that caused my son to be brutally beaten, brutally killed.

HERSHIPS: New York's lieutenant governor, who was there, said the state is providing $2 million in a victims' compensation fund.

MARTIN: That is reporter Sally Herships in New York City. Sally, thank you so much.

HERSHIPS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.