The apartment fire that killed 17 people, including eight children, in the Bronx on Sunday morning has become one of deadly fire in modern New York City history. The fire is believed to have started after a space heater being used in one of the appliances malfunctioned.
It is the second major New Year’s fire in the northeast after a Philadelphia restaurant was engulfed on January 5, leaving 12 dead. Nine of those victims were children. The cause of that fire has yet to be determined, but both fires raise questions about safety features in each building. During the Bronx fire, the building’s alarm system and fire doors are under investigation. In Philadelphia, boathouses are said to have only one fire extinguisher at the entrance of the building and no sprinklers, smoke detectors, or fire exits.
The deaths in these incidents, which took place in predominantly Black neighborhoods, are being treated as accidents. That makes them part of a larger trend: Statistically, people who often die from accidents, including fire, We incommensurate people of color.
Jessie Singer is the author of an upcoming book Don ‘t have accident, which examines current and historical racial and economic disparities in accidental deaths. The book also explores the word “accident” and how it is used by the general public. Speaking to TIME the day after the Bronx fires, Singer discussed how random fires fit into this dynamic and why the discussion around accidental deaths needs to change.
TIME: You studied the disparity that existed when the accident happened. How does the fire in the Bronx fit into that story?
If you examine how racial disparities appear in random deaths, where the outcomes are most clearly divided by race, it is [in] These accidents can be prevented through policy and infrastructure.
Bronx accidents could have been prevented with sprinklers, with real self-closing doors, with functional alarms, with active heating so people don’t have to use additional heat . People in New York City who use additional heat as space heaters directly correlate with poverty rates. Living conditions in [the Bronx apartment building] not great. People live there because they can’t afford to live anywhere else. We call these “accidents” but we know the places where accidents are most likely to happen and where they are most likely to happen. [people of color] people living in poverty.
How does that disparity persist?
Accidental deaths have been increasing since the early 1990s. More and more people are dying from accidents, and with that, racial and economic disparities are widening. [The word] “Accident” is just a magic word we use to denote some horror that we don’t want to look too closely at, and we don’t want to talk about. We can say “it was just an accident” and move on.
Accidental deaths are heavily impacted by deregulation, so as the federal government shrinks and the agencies tasked with protecting us get smaller and smaller, we are less protected from accidents and therefore more likely to die.
Your book explores how we talk about accidents. What are the issues with the current narrative surrounding them?
By definition, an accident is an unpredictable, unforeseeable event. Nothing [these kinds of incidents] is unpredictable or undetectable. During the Bronx fires, we heard a lot about space heaters and left-open doors. We focus on what individuals might have done without the system model.
Crashes focus on the idea of human error, that someone has done something wrong. And if that’s our story, the answer is human repair. It’s the most powerful story about word accidents, that it’s a human problem. If we look at the data, accidents happen under dangerous conditions. That’s what we should focus on.
What is a more constructive way to talk about accidents?
I think if people hear the word “accident” it will make people question. How was it an accident? Why is it an accident? Has it happened before? Why did it happen? How are we going to prevent it from happening again?
In asking those questions, we are self-aware of the deeply systemic, racist, and class-based nature of how these terrible tragedies repeat themselves and move on from these simple stories. about the last person exposed to the crash before it turned deadly.
How might these racial and economic gaps begin to close?
Addressing racial and economic disparities in accidental deaths will require a lot of attention on the interactive systems we need to fix. We can start by changing the way we approach accidents. We will not prevent mistakes, but we can prevent the harm of mistakes. We won’t stop fires, but we can reduce their harm. By changing our approach to accidents, we can begin to address disparities.
If [New York City] The administrators said they would consider all the factors that led to this fire and decided to start with the fact that people are living in a building where they know conditions are unsafe and don’t focus on a space fireplace there, then that would be a good start.
As soon as you focus on a human error, we lose the ability to prevent accidents.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
https://time.com/6138342/bronx-fire-racial-disparities-accident-deaths/ Why People of Color Are More Likely to Die in Accidents Like the Bronx Fire