Possible Cause of NY House Fire that Killed 7 Children Identified

Mourners gather during funeral services for the seven siblings killed in a house fire, Sunday, March 22, 2015, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Mourners gather during funeral services for the seven siblings killed in a house fire, Sunday, March 22, 2015, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish community shattered by the deaths of seven siblings in a house fire carried out their funerals Sunday, a day after a hot plate left on for the Sabbath is believed to have sparked the fire that killed them.

The tragedy had some neighborhood Jews reconsidering the practice of keeping hot plates on for the Sabbath, a common modern method of obeying tradition prohibiting use of fire on the holy day.

The bodies of the children from the Sassoon family, ages 5 to 16, were to be flown to Israel after the funeral for a prompt burial. They died early Saturday when flames engulfed their home in Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood. Investigators believe the hot plate left on a kitchen counter set off the fire that trapped the children and badly injured their mother and another sibling.

The service began with prayers in Hebrew, and shrieks could be heard trough speakers that broadcast it outside to several hundred people who gathered inside and on the streets.

“They were so pure,” the children’s father, Gabi Sassoon, said during a eulogy Sunday. “My wife, she came out fighting.”

“My children were unbelievable. They were the best,” he said as mourners outside the funeral home cried in the streets. “You have to love them as parents. You have to love them as teachers.”

At their fire-gutted home on Bedford Avenue, a vase of white roses sat in front of as a police officer stood guard and contractors boarded up windows with plywood.

“I call this not a tragedy but an absolute disaster,” said state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents Midwood.

The blaze killed three girls and four boys — all members of the neighborhood’s tightknit community of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Authorities identified the victims as girls Eliane, 16; Rivkah, 11; and Sara, 6; and boys David, 12; Yeshua, 10; Moshe, 8; and Yaakob, 5.

Both the mother and a daughter — Gayle Sassoon and 14-year-old Siporah Sassoon — remained in critical condition.

At the time of the fire, Gabi Sassoon — a religious education instructor — was in Manhattan at a Shabbaton, an educational celebration held on a Sabbath.

Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro, who broke down at one point as he spoke about the blaze, said it was the city’s worst in recent memory.

In 2007, eight children and an adult were killed in a 100-year-old Bronx building where African immigrant families lived. Fire officials said an overheated space heater cord sparked that blaze.

In Brooklyn, it wasn’t carelessness or forgetfulness that resulted in death.

The hot plate was left on for the Sabbath, which lasts from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Many religious Jews use one to keep food warm in order to obey the traditional prohibition on use of fire on the holy day as well as work in all forms, including turning on appliances.

The Sassoons’ hot plate apparently malfunctioned, setting off flames that tore up the stairs, trapping the children in their second-floor bedrooms as they slept, investigators said.

A neighbor, Karen Rosenblatt, said she called 911 after seeing flames and smoke billowing from the home. Her husband said he heard “what seemed like a young girl scream, ‘Help me! Help me!'” she said.

Firefighters arrived in less than four minutes and discovered the badly burned and distraught mother pleading for help, officials said. When they broke in the door, they encountered a raging fire that had spread through the kitchen, dining room, common hall, stairway leading upstairs and the rear bedrooms.

“I couldn’t help crying my heart out as I saw the house,” said Dalia Hen, 51, a Midwood neighbor. “It’s like our own children.”

City officials trying to prevent other such disasters have set up four locations in the area to hand out leaflets warning residents to make sure they have smoke detectors — and that they check the batteries. Free batteries were being handed out.

“We saw they’re giving out batteries and of course we’re going to go home and change our batteries and add more fire smoke alarms,” said Hen.

Hikind said he’s hearing from more and more people concerned about use of the hot plates on Sabbath. He said families may need to look at other alternatives.

He said he called his daughter, who has six children and uses a hot plate, and told her, “You’ve got to stop using that.”

“This is an important wakeup call for people, because it may save your life or the life of your children,” he said.

“We cannot use fire on the Sabbath,” Hen said. “The only alternative is to use a hot plate. I guess it’s something we should be more aware of — wake up at night and check up on it.”

Shifra Schorr, 44, a mother of five a few blocks from the Sassoon house, said she and her friends don’t use hot plates, but “we’re all talking about it.”

Across the street from the Sassoon home, 89-year-old Izzy Abade said she’d watched Gayle Sassoon grow up, then her children playing.

“They used to play right across the street, riding bikes, playing in the backyard, playing ball.”

Daniel Bar of Israel’s religion ministry said the children’s bodies will arrive in Israel on Monday. A time and location for the burials had not been immediately set.

Associated Press

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