It was the deadliest fire in New York City in decades: 17 dead, including 8 children, in a Bronx high-rise. Officials said early what had caused the fire (a space heater) and how residents died (smoke inhalation). But how could smoke from a fire that hardly spread beyond one unit kill so many in a 19-story building, when firefighters arrived within minutes?
New York Times journalists set out to answer that question. In an authoritative account, they created an interactive spatial reconstruction of the catastrophe, which showed how quickly the smoke spread in the building on Jan. 9, 2022 — and why. The building’s only fire-safety system — self-closing doors — had failed in three places. The deaths were preventable, the investigation found, bringing into stark relief the risks of relying on a single fire-prevention system that can easily fail, especially in many older high-rises with minimal sprinklers. It was also accompanied by an augmented reality filter that used the phone’s LIDAR sensors to simulate how smoke can affect the ability to see in your own space.
The Times worked with fire scientists at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts to create a simulation of the smoke’s path. The simulation was based on The Times’s exclusive reporting as well as information provided by the Fire Department. Multiple generated scenarios helped journalists understand how the smoke’s behavior was affected by the failure of the building’s fire-safety system. The simulations were created using software called Fire Dynamics Simulator, which is used by researchers and investigators to estimate the flow of smoke in structures.
The simulations and visual references from reporting were used to create the augmented reality filter that gave our readers a first hand experience into how smoke can affect visibility in their own space. They could walk around and see the visibility change with the help of the filter. We used LIDAR mapping of newer phones to accurately represent visibility of objects in their space, which is something we couldn’t have done earlier.
Using exclusive 911 call data from more than 40 apartments, the team also connected the timestamps with apartment numbers to reveal how smoke was being reported on the higher floors within minutes of the start of the fire.
For its vivid use of 3D modeling, video and audio transcripts combined with deeply reported yet concise investigative storytelling, this is an example of how a story about the failures of a Bronx apartment building’s fire safety system is best told through immersive illustrations of the building itself. The reader leaves more informed as to how fire safety systems in large buildings work and how to react when faced with the fatal dangers of smoke inhalation.