The apartment fire that killed 17 people, including eight children, in the Bronx on Sunday morning has become one of the deadliest fires in modern New York City’s history. The blaze reportedly started after a space heater that was being used in one of the units malfunctioned.
It’s the second major fire incident of the new year in the northeast after a rowhouse in Philadelphia was engulfed on Jan. 5, resulting in 12 deaths. Nine of those victims were children. The cause of that fire has not been determined yet, but both fire incidents have brought into question the safety features in each of the buildings. In the Bronx fire, the building’s alarm system and fire doors are being investigated. In Philadelphia, the rowhouse reportedly only had one fire extinguisher in the entryway of the building and did not have sprinklers, smoke detectors, or fire escapes.
The deaths in these incidents, which took place in predominantly Black neighborhoods, are being labeled as accidents. That makes them part of a larger trend: Statistically, the people who typically die as a result of accidents, including fires, are disproportionately people of color.
Jessie Singer is the author of the forthcoming book There Are No Accidents, which looks at the current and historical racial and economic disparities in accidental deaths. The book also explores the word “accident” and how it’s used by the public. Speaking with TIME the day after the Bronx fire, Singer discussed how accidental fires fit into this dynamic and why the discussion around accidental deaths need to change.
TIME: You’ve studied the disparities that exist when accidents happen. How does the fire in the Bronx fit into that story?
If you examine how racial disparities appear in accidental death, where outcomes are most starkly divided by race, it’s [in] the accidents that could have been prevented through policy and infrastructure.
The accident in the Bronx could have been prevented with sprinklers, with self-closing doors that actually worked, with a functional alarm system, with a heating system that worked so that people didn’t have to use supplement heat. The people in New York City who use supplemental heat like space heaters directly correlate with the poverty rate. The living conditions in [the Bronx apartment building] were not great. People were living there because they couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. We call these “accidents” but we know where these accidents are most likely to happen and they’re most likely to happen to [people of color] who live in poverty.
How does that disparity persist?
Accidental deaths have been growing since the early ’90s. More people are dying by accident and with that, the racial and economic disparities are growing. [The word] “accident” is just a magic word that we use to delegate some horrors that we’d rather not look at too closely, and that we’d rather not talk about. We can say “it was just an accident” and move on.
Accidental deaths are extremely affected by deregulation, so as the federal government shrinks and our agencies that are meant to protect us become smaller and more defanged, 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 around them?
By definition, an accident is an unpredictable, unpreventable event. Nothing about [these kinds of incidents] are unpredictable or unpreventable. In the Bronx fire, we’ve heard a lot about the space heater and the doors left open. We’re focused on what individuals could have done which ignores the systemic pattern.
Accidents sort of focus on this idea of human error, that someone did something wrong. And if that’s our narrative, then the answer is to fix people. That’s the most powerful narrative of the word accident, that it’s a people problem. If we look at the data, accidents happen under dangerous conditions. That’s what we should be focused on.
What is a more constructive way to talk about accidents?
I think if people hear the word “accident,” it should make people ask questions. How was it an accident? Why is it an accident? Has it happened before? Why did it happen again? How are we going to prevent it from happening again?
In asking those questions, we make ourselves aware of the systemic, deeply racialized and deeply classist nature of how these horrible tragedies repeat again and again and move on from these simplistic narratives about the last person to interact with the accident before it became deadly.
How can these racial and economic gaps begin to close?
The problem of solving the racial and economic disparities in accidental deaths will require a great deal of attention on interactive systems that we need to fix. We can start by changing how we approach accidents. We’re not going to prevent mistakes but we can prevent the harm of mistakes. We’re not going to prevent fires but we can reduce the harm of fires. By changing the approach to accidents we can start to address the disparities.
If [New York City] administrators say that they’re going to look into all of the interlocking factors that led to this fire and decide to start with the fact that people were living in a building where they knew conditions were unsafe and not focus on that one space heater, then that would be a good start.
As soon as you focus on the one human error that occurred, we’ve lost the ability to prevent accidents.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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