Brooklyn mourns after house fire kills 7 children – Newsday

Posted: Sunday, March 22, 2015

A community stricken with grief over the loss of seven children in a house fire Saturday morning converged on a Brooklyn funeral home Sunday to mourn what many said was an unfathomable loss.

Services for the children of the Sassoon family were scheduled for 3 p.m. Sunday at Shomrei Hadas Chapels in Borough Park.

The bodies of sisters Eliane, 16; Rivkah, 11; and Sara, 6; along with brothers David, 12; Yeshua, 10; Moshe, 8; and Yaakob, 5, were to be flown to Tel Aviv Sunday night to be buried in Israel, where the family had lived up until 1 1/2 years ago.

Their mother, Gayle Sassoon, was listed in critical condition at Jacobi Hospital Sunday afternoon. She and her surviving 15-year-old daughter, Tzipora, leaped to to safety from a second-story window.

The blaze in the 3300 block of Bedford Avenue was the most catastrophic loss of life since a March 2007 Bronx fire killed an adult and nine children.

Victor Sedaka, 46, who lives three doors down, said he heard shrieking and saw the mother sitting on a stoop across the street, screaming “Save my children! Save my children!” Sedaka didn’t recognize her at first because she was covered in soot and blood.

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Gayle Sassoon’s husband is a teacher and was in Manhattan attending a Shabbaton, an educational conference consisting of lectures and celebration normally held during the Sabbath, at the time of the fire, said state Assemb. Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn).

Hikind said he had not spoken to the father, but had talked to other family members.

“There’s little to say. You sort of get on the phone and very little is said,” Hikind said. “What do you say? ‘I’m sorry. You gotta move on. God will help.’ What do you say? Right now people should feel the pain because it is very painful.”

At the site of the burned out house, workers hired by New York City boarded-up the building while an NYPD officer stood guard Sunday morning.

Nearby a vase of seven long-stemmed, white roses with a large white bow sat on the sidewalk.

Vick Singh, from the Bellerose, Queens-based Mark Contracting NY LLC, stacked sheets of wire mesh and plywood. “It’s a sadness, what can I say?” Singh said as he lifted planks of plywood from his truck. “Seven children.”

The fast-spreading fire caused by a faulty electrical food-warming plate caused the deaths of the children sleeping in their Midwood, Brooklyn, home early Saturday. Their mother and sister were able to leap to safety but were critically injured.

FDNY officials said the plate ignited everything around it in the Sassoon family’s kitchen, and the fire swept upstairs where the seven children, ages 5 to 16, were sleeping. Shabbat hot plates are used in Orthodox Jewish homes to keep food warm on the Sabbath when religious tradition bars cooking or operating appliances.

FDNY units reached the scene 3 minutes and 25 seconds after a 911 call at 12:23 a.m., but the blaze was already too far advanced to rescue the victims, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.

“The fire met them at the front door,” Nigro said. “Firefighters pushed the flames back and when they got up the stairs, they did locate the children, but it was too late.”

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In the Midwood neighborhood Sunday morning, the tragedy was in the forefront of residents’ minds.

Judy and Moshe Goldring, who live across the street, said they were struck by the bravery of the firefighters who charged into the house filled with wild flames and thick smoke.

“The fire department, the EMS, the Hatzolah … They were amazing,” said Judy Goldring.

“We saw all of it, unfortunately,” Moshe Goldring said. “I saw the firemen trying to resuscitate them right in the middle of the street. They charged right in. The place was ablaze. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

He said the father, whose name he doesn’t know, was a yeshiva teacher.

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“He was a very private guy. He was very quiet.”

Hikind said he planned to attend the funeral for the children but was anticipating a crush of pain.

“I’m not sure I want to be inside. I’m not sure I can deal with seven coffins. … I can’t even imagine what that will look like — seven coffins, seven coffins of children.”

“We are a community of children. The thing that makes us rich is our children,” Hikind said. “So to lose seven children in one single family is beyond any kind if comprehension, beyond words. … The entire community — not just Jewish, but way beyond, of course — everyone with a heart understands what it means to lose a child much less seven children in an instant.”

Shifra Schorr, 44, said Sunday the children’s deaths has cast a pall on the community.

“We’re heartbroken,” said Schorr, who lives a few blocks away in the Midwood neighborhood. “No one can even talk. . . . We’re all mothers.”

Schorr, a mother of five who said she is an Orthodox Jew, said the community is discussing fire safety in light of the deadly blaze. A few years ago, she said, a fire broke out at her home during Shabbos when she left a candle burning on her glass kitchen table and it tipped over.

“My whole tablecloth was on fire,” said Schorr. “It was so fast.”

She said she doesn’t use a hot plate, preferring a crock pot to keep food warm during the weekly Sabbath.

“We’re all talking about it,” she said, adding that she checked her smoke detector on Saturday.

“It’s very, very sad,” she said. “It’s just heartbreaking. Everyone here has a family and has children and to have the family ripped away, it’s your life. … I don’t know how the family will go on. But somehow they will. Someone will help. They need strength.”

Meanwhile on Avenue M, perpendicular to Bedford Avenue, four FDNY trucks were lined up and fire officials huddled nearby offering fire safety education.

The trucks read: “Only Working Smoke Alarms Save Lives.”

Izzy Abade, 89, lives across the street and said he’s known the mother, who he described as “nice and courteous” since she was a child.

“Horrible, you can’t describe it,” said Abade. “It’s horrible. There’s no way you can even talk about it. It’s sickening.”

He said the children were often outside playing.

“They used to play right across the street — riding bikes, playing in the backyard and playing ball,” he said. “We prayed a little bit at Shul for them just now.”

Sunday morning, Mark Zweier, 52, who lives 10 blocks away, was to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish — a prayer for the dead- at the Sasson home.

“They were little kids,” Zweier said. “I feel sad what happened.”

Dovid Leder, a math teacher at Ateret Torah who worked with three of the Sassoon boys, said they were “the nicest kids, always on time, always did their homework.”

Leder, who spoke to a reporter outside of the charred house, said he had classes or tutoring groups with the 8-year-old and 10-year-old, but worked most frequently with 12-year-old David Sassoon.

The boy was a “great student, I can’t get over it,” Leder said, recalling that the last lesson that David Sassoon had mastered was solving for “x.”

While the other students got frustrated and gave up, the 12-year-old persevered.

Hikind said the tragedy should serve as a safety reminder to Jews using hot plates and other devices during the Sabbath, which he said can be left on in excess of 25 hours.

He said he told his daughter to get rid of her hot plate because the wires looked frayed. Hikind said he keeps his gas on for the Sabbath and uses a blech, essentially a metal plate to keep food warm.

“This is a wake-up call,” Hikind said. “I’m not saying to people, ‘Get rid of your hot plate. Throw ’em out.’ I’m saying it’s worth taking a look.”

Dalia Hen stopped by the block Sunday to see the house, a scene that left her in tears.

“We just paid respects and looked directly at the house and feel the sorrow that everybody’s feeling,” said Hen, 51, of Midwood. “We saw that they’re giving out batteries and of course we’re going to go home and change our batteries and add more fire smoke alarms to our house.”

Hen, who said she’s an Orthodox Jew, said because members of the religion cannot use electricity during the Sabbath, “our only alternative is a hot plate.”

She said she’s used her hot plate and a crock pot “for years” without incident.

Hen said she doesn’t know the Sassoon family but explained, “My heart is breaking for them just the same. We all somehow know each other spiritually. … I couldn’t help but cry my heart out as I saw the house. Everybody is talking abut it. It’s on everybody’s mind. It’s very painful. It’s like our own children.”

Judy Benatar, 35, was among parents who arrived to the scene to discuss fire safety with their young children.

Outside the Sassoon home, she aimed to show her children, a son 14, and daughter, 12, “the aftermath of a fire.”

“I came to teach my kids,” she said, noting she does not use a hot plate. She uses gas-operated technology, with a blech, another type of Jewish hot plate, and said she hopes families are motivated to make sure the technology is safe.

She said the circumstances were tragic “for such a nice loving family,” seeking to “keep the Torah laws.” She added the community has “got to learn from this and try to move forward.”

With Maria Alvarez


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