Shortly after midnight on Saturday morning, firefighters responded to a conflagration on Bedford Avenue, in Midwood. A two-story house was on fire, flames shooting as far as 15 feet from the windows; the occupants were an Orthodox Jewish family, including eight children aged 5 to 16. Seven of them would die in the fire, making it the city’s deadliest since March 2007, when nine children and a woman died in a Bronx blaze.
Authorities believe that a small Sabbath convenience ignited the fire: an electric hot plate that had been left on in the kitchen, according to the New York Times. Many observant Orthodox families will light a hot plate before sundown on Friday and leave it on until the end of the Sabbath, on Saturday night. This allows families to keep food warm while adhering to the Sabbath prohibition against on lighting a flame.
An “unknown malfunction” in the electric hot plate at 3371 Bedford Avenue caused the fire to spark in the first-floor kitchen. It quickly traveled up an open staircase to the second floor, where the Sassoon family slept: four boys, and four girls, and their mother. (Their father was away at a religious conference.) FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said that investigators found a smoke detector in the basement, but had not yet found any on the first or second floors of the house.
According to the Times, the stairwell became “a pillar of flames,” barricading the children from an escape route.
Four children in two bedrooms in the back of the house were confined to their rooms as thick smoke filled the area. Three more children were stuck in a front bedroom.
Gayle Sasson, the mother, was separated from her children by a wall of flames. She leapt from her second-story window and stumbled to a cousin’s house, across the street. One daughter, 15-year-old Siporah, also leapt from a window. Both sustained burns and smoke inhalation, and are currently in critical condition.
Due to the Sabbath prohibition on electronic communication, the father, Gabriel Sassoon, did not hear about the tragedy for several hours, until police reached him at a synagogue. The Sassoons had moved to Brooklyn from Israel two years ago, in order to get closer to Gayle’s extended family—she grew up in Midwood. The family were well-respected amongst their friends and neighbors, one of whom remembered the children as “some of the nicest, most well-behaved kids. A great family.”
At yesterday’s funeral, hundreds of mourners packed into Shomrei Hadas Chapels, and thousands more assembled on the streets outside. Gabriel Sassoon remembered each of his children in turn in a eulogy that last fourteen minutes. The children’s remains were then flown to Israel, where they will be buried today at Har HaMenuchos cemetery in Jerusalem.
Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.