By Agence France-Presse
The fire broke out around 6:51pm (2351 GMT) in a 25-apartment building near the Bronx Zoo, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the US financial capital.
A one-year-old child was among those killed as Red Cross volunteers handed out blankets and emergency responders set up a makeshift shelter in a nearby school on a bitterly cold night.
Firefighters put out a major house fire on Prospect avenue on December 28, 2017 in the Bronx borough of New York City. // AFP PHOTO
Tearful residents spoke of hearing shouts of "fire, fire" in the building and a mad rush to exit the property, battling past the smoke, with just the clothes on their backs into the sub-freezing night.
Mayor Bill de Blasio called it an "unspeakable tragedy," in the middle of the holiday season when families come together, as the city of 8.5 million straddles Christmas and New Year festivities.
"Tonight here in the Bronx there are families that have been torn apart. This is the worst fire tragedy we have seen in this city in at least a quarter century," de Blasio said.
A handout photo made available by the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) shows FDNY members operating at the scene of a four-alarm fire at an apartment building in the Bronx, New York, USA, 28 December 2017. // EPA-EFE PHOTO
"I am sorry to report 12 New Yorkers are dead, including one child as young as one year old," he told reporters after fire fighters extinguished the flames.
"There are four people critically injured who are fighting for their lives, other serious injuries as well," he added.
The blaze began on the first floor and spread rapidly throughout the five-floor walk-up on Prospect Avenue, with fire fighters on the scene within three minutes, department chief Daniel Nigro told reporters.
- 'Died on various floors' -
Television footage showed fire fighters plucking panicked residents to safety from a fire escape.
Two of the dead were discovered in a bath tub full of water, where they had apparently sheltered from the blaze, US media reported.
Nigro said it was "way too early" to comment on the cause of the inferno.
People who evacuate from their house after a fatal major house fire on Prospect avenue on December 29, 2017 in the Bronx borough of New York City. // AFP PHOTO
At least 12 people were rescued, but the search of the building continues, and the death toll could rise further, the mayor warned.
"This tragedy is, without question, historic in its magnitude. Our hearts go out to every family who lost a loved one here and everyone fighting for their lives," said Nigro.
"People died on various floors, they range in ages from one to over 50," he added. "In a department that's certainly no stranger to tragedy, we're shocked at this loss."
It was the second deadly New York residential blaze in less than two weeks. A mother and three children were killed in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn when a fire tore through their home on December 18.
In March 2007, 10 people were killed in another fire in the Bronx that tore through a home to two immigrant families, itself the worst fire in the city since 1990 apart from the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The New York Times said Thursday's blaze was the worst in the city since 87 people were killed in a 1990 inferno at a Bronx social club.