In the last days of 2017, in an apartment in the Bronx, a three-year-old boy played with the knobs on a stove. Somehow, the fire jumped from the stovetop. Maybe it caught a towel, or a shirt, or a stuffed bear. However it happened, the flames quickly consumed the kitchen.

The boy screamed. His mother came running. She grabbed the boy, and his two-year-old sibling, and ran. Behind her, she left the apartment door open. From the doorway, the fire sucked into the stairwell of the apartment building and up the stairs like a chimney.

Maria Batiz died in the fire, as did her eight-month-old granddaughter. Karen Stewart-Francis, age 37, and her husband, Holt Francis, died. Their daughters, two-year-old Kylie Francis and seven-year-old Charmela Francis, also died. So did their 19-year-old cousin, Shantay Young. Emmanuel Mensah, a new soldier home on leave, helped four of his neighbors out of the building before being overcome by smoke himself. Other victims included three adult men, a 17-year-old girl, and a 12-year-old boy.

On the radio, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the fire, “seems like a horrible, tragic accident.”


When Mayor de Blasio called New York City’s deadliest fire in nearly three decades “an accident” he meant: This was not arson. This was not negligence. There will be no perp walk to weigh against the 13 funerals.

“Accident” is a way of saying there is no one to blame. But in the papers the next day, blame still fell.

The mother of the boy who played with the stove had left him alone while she showered. The mother of the boy who played with the stove reportedly knew that her son had been known to play with the stove. The mother of the boy who played with the stove left the door to her apartment open as she fled, allowing the fire to billow into the stairwell and up the stairs like a chimney. At a press conference, New York City fire commissioner Daniel Nigro scolded: “Close the door, close the door, close the door.”

It is not a crime, the mayor meant when he said the death of 13 New Yorkers was an accident. But everyone still asked: Who can we blame? Family members of some victims sued the city for negligence.


Sidney Dekker is a former airplane pilot from the Netherlands and sort of a safety psychologist. In his 2002 book The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error, Dekker describes two schools of thought about accidents and who is to blame: the “new view” of human error and the “bad apple” theory.

In very simplified terms, the new view says that we should expect people to screw up. We must design for human error, Dekker says, whether we are making a machine, a factory, a road, or an apartment building.

The bad apple theory, which Dekker would prefer we all stopped using, says that accidents are the result of a few bad apples. Most everything is safe, if it were not for a few unreliable humans.

In the Netherlands, which has one of the lowest rates of workplace accident fatality rates in the world, they are not less accident-prone. Rather, they build everything to cause less harm when, inevitably, accidents happen.

The harder we look for a bad apple, the more we miss the point, and in the process, the opportunity for prevention. What is solved in finding a person to blame?


About 20 years before the fire in the Bronx, a very similar fire burned a few miles south. The fire began in the apartment where Macaulay Culkin’s family lived on the Upper West Side.

Faulty wiring sparked the fire. A couch and a Christmas tree caught fire. As the flames grew, the family fled, leaving their apartment door open. From the doorway, the fire sucked into the stairwell and up the stairs like a chimney. Four people died.

In the papers the next day, Daniel Nigro, then deputy chief of the New York City Fire Department, launched into a lament on doors left open that he would later repeat in the Bronx. When leaving an apartment on fire, he scolded, “People should close the door behind them.”

On the Upper West Side, the building where Culkin’s family lived was fireproof. The Bronx building was not.