NEW YORK (AP) — Several families whose loved ones died or were critically injured while trying to escape a smoked-filled Bronx apartment building sued the owners Tuesday, alleging safety violations that led to the wrongful deaths of 17 people, including eight children.

The five lawsuits were filed on behalf of the families by Benjamin Crump, a high-profile civil rights attorney based in Florida, and the New York law firm Weitz & Luxenberg.

“We have a lot of the families who paid such a tragic loss in the apartment fire,” Crump said during a news conference outside the building, saying that violations of city safety rules “caused unspeakable loss of life and injury to these families, mostly from Africa.”

Fire officials say a malfunctioning electric space heater started the blaze the morning of Jan. 9.

While the fire damaged only a small part of the building, it produced black, caustic smoke that quickly engulfed the complex. The suffocating smoke rose through a stairwell of the 19-story building and killed people as they attempted to flee.

“These Black families who lost so much that seem to be marginalized not only before the tragic fire broke out, but even in the aftermath,” Crump said.

Several relatives of the fire victims spoke at the news conference to express frustration over the uncertainties spawned by the fire as they look for new places to live. Some remain in hotel rooms.

“What happened on Jan. 9 was very devastating and tragic, and very unexpected, and could have been avoided. I lost my sister in the fire. She was trying to come down to save my family,” said Fatima Janneh, whose sister Sera, 27, was among those killed.

“We need justice for the families that lost people, as well as the other tenants in the building. We’re all victims to what happened here,” Janneh said.

The lawsuits, filed in Superior Court in the Bronx, names Bronx Park Phase III Preservation, the Bronx Phase III Housing Co., and three investment groups as defendants.

An email was sent to the building owners seeking comment on the lawsuit.

The lawsuit does not specify any monetary damages being sought, nor does it mention any specific safety violations.

But another attorney for the families, Larry Goldhirsch, said those specifics will be identified in the coming weeks — including malfunctioning door springs and windows that could not open.

In their haste to escape, the occupants of the apartment where the fire started left their front door open behind them.

Spring-loaded hinges that were supposed to shut the door automatically did not work. A second door left open in a stairwell higher up acted as a flue, sucking smoke upward.

Fire investigators said that the apartment’s front door and a door on the 15th floor should have been self-closing to help contain the spreading smoke, but that the doors stayed fully open. It was not clear if the doors failed mechanically or if they had been manually disabled.

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