Profound grief, shock and disbelief grasped the tight knit Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Midwood late Saturday, March 21, as they learned that the lives of seven children (ages 5-16) had been claimed in the worst fire in New York City since 2007.
Just after midnight on the Jewish Sabbath (March 21), flames and thick black smoke emanated from the home of Sassoon family on Bedford Avenue between Avenues L and M. Fire investigators believe that the cause of the deadly blaze was a malfunctioning hot plate that was left on in the first floor kitchen in the back of the house. Hot plates are commonly used in the Orthodox Jewish community so that warm meals may be served while observing the Sabbath prohibition on lighting a flame.
Inside the home were Gayle Sassoon, 45, and her eight children who were sleeping in second floor bedrooms. According to information provided by fire officials, the fire smoldered in the kitchen unnoticed but as soon as the blaze reached the stairwell, it shot upstairs, feeding off wood inside the home.
The New York Times reported that “the stairwell became a pillar of flames. 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.”
Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro said Mrs. Sassoon was separated from her children by the flames but valiantly attempted to have them rescued from the inferno after leaping from a second story window and getting help from neighbors. Also jumping from the window was Mrs. Sassoon’s second oldest daughter, Siporah,15, who remains in critical condition at Staten Island University Hospital North.
The remaining children (three girls and four boys) were declared dead at area hospitals. The names of the girls are: Eliana, 16; Rivkah, 11; and Sara, 6. The four boys are David, 12; Yeshua, 10; Moshe, 8; and Yaakob, 5.
Reports reveal that investigators located a smoke detector in the basement of the home but had not found any on the first floor or the second, where the family slept.
Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro said. “That’s always a tragedy in itself.
Arriving at the scene in the early afternoon hours on Saturday was New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio who walked inside the shell of the house with firefighters. “You can literally see what was a home for a large, strong family and now it’s wiped out, every room empty, burned and charred,” he said, adding: “This is a tragedy that has very few examples to look at, it’s so painful, it’s so difficult.”
Flames shot 15 feet out of windows on both sides of the house according to fire officials. A neighbor who lived in the home behind the Sassoon house said that he heard one of the girls yelling for help and called 911. According to the neighbor, Andrew Rosenblatt, 65, the smoke had grown so thick that he could no longer see the back of the Sassoon home, about 40 feet away.
After jumping from the window, Ms. Sassoon made her way to her cousin’s house across the street; begging for assistance. When she arrived at the home of her relative Gary Jemal, a neighbor and friend named Victor Sedaka found her “black and charred” and almost unrecognizable.
In a hoarse voice that was barely audible, Sedaka heard her try to scream: “Save my children, save my children,” according to a New York Times report.
“I heard the mother yelling, ‘My kids are in there! My kids are in there! Get them out! Get them out!’ ” said neighbor Nate Weber, who lives a few doors down from the Sassoons.
Initially about 15 firefighters, with hoses blasting, charged inside the home. Because the flames had raced through the first floor, firefighters were forced to spray water on the blaze before they could enter. The stairwell was still barely navigable. They knocked down the flames and found the children in their bedrooms and passed their bodies through windows to firefighters who were on ladders and on a porch behind the house, according to the New York Times.
James Long, a fire department spokesman said, “they took them out every which way.”
“I saw the EMTs carrying people on the stretcher,” said Weber. “I just turned away. I didn’t want to see that.”
Mrs. Sassoon and her daughter Siporah both sustained burns and smoke inhalation and were in critical condition with the elder Sassoon being brought to Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, which has a hyperbaric oxygen chamber for burn victims. Sources close to the family said that both she and her surviving daughter do not know of the deaths of their other family members as they are sedated and intubated.
Ms. Sassoon’s husband and the father of her children, Gabi was attending a religious conference in Manhattan while the fire raged. Given the Sabbath prohibition on electronic communication, he did not learn what had happened until several hours after the fire, when the Police Department reached him at a synagogue. Sources have said that upon hearing the news, the distraught father fell to his knees and dissolved into tears. A community member told the Daily News that Mr. Sassoon was completely devastated.
A neighbor of the family said that Gayle Sassoon had grown up in the house that she and her family currently resided in. The title of the house is in Ms. Sassoon’s parents names. They live in the Syrian Jewish enclave of Deal, New Jersey during the summers and in Florida during the winters.
The neighbor told the New York Times that Gayle was a moderately religious girl and married her childhood sweetheart, from whom she got divorced before having any children.
Gayle later became more religious and moved to Israel where she met her current husband, with whom she had eight children. The family moved to Brooklyn from Israel about two years ago in order to be close to a large extended family, as was reported by the New York Times.
According to the report, neighbors described the Sassoon children as "little angels" who were well behaved. The family prayed at the nearby Congregation Keter Torah synagogue and some of the children attended Yeshivat Ateret Torah. Members of the synagogue said they were at a loss for words at the horrifying tragedy and asked for privacy at this most difficult time.
A stream of friends and neighbors passed by on the sidewalk, some of them wiping away tears.
The fire was the city’s deadliest since March 2007, when nine children and a woman from two families were killed in the Bronx. That blaze started in a cord attached to a space heater, then raced up a staircase in a 100-year-old wooden building.”
Thousands of grief stricken mourners gathered outside Shomrei Hadas Chapels in Borough Park to attend the heart wrenching memorial service. Police barriers were erected to handle the very large crowd expected as a community and a people mourned together. They listened to the addresses over crackling speakers while 340 people entered the funeral home’s largest chapel.
His voice reverberating with palpable anguish, Gabriel Sassoon, the father of the victims, began to eulogize seven of his children. “My children were wonderful, they were the best,” he said.
He added, “I want to ask my children for forgiveness. I did my best and my wife did her best. Please everybody love your children. It’s the only thing that counts.”
Speaking of his surviving wife and daughter, he asked the community, “Give us the strength to continue.”
Outside the chapel, throngs of people gathered to express their heartfelt grief over the loss. According to a report in the New York Times, women wept into tissues while men dressed in black coats and black hats could be seen with tears in their years.
Rabbi David Ozeri, representing Yeshivat Ateret Torah, the school that the children attended tried to give perspective to the enormity of the tregady.
“A holocaust has hit our city,” he said with profound grief in his voice.
After the memorial service the funeral procession headed to Kennedy International Airport and the coffins were placed on a flight to Israel. According to Israeli daily Israel Hayom, the family had lived in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof.
Hundreds of mourners were in attendance Monday afternoon, March 23, at the Har HaMenuchos cemetery in Jerusalem as the seven Sassoon children were laid to rest. Their father, Gabi, issued a tearful eulogy at the final stop of their funeral procession.
Their father began his eulogy with a phrase from the Song of Songs (6:2): "My beloved is gone down into his garden, to the beds of spices, to feed in the gardens, and to gather lilies."
Referring to the rabbinical interpretation of the book as a metaphor for the Jewish people's relationship with God, he noted that the rabbis viewed the flowers as a metaphor for the righteous.
"God went down into His garden and picked the flower at the height of its beauty, before it began to wither," he said. "He wanted to catch the righteous man at the height of his righteousness. so he would stay that way (forever)."
"He came here to pick seven flowers. Why seven? Was one not enough?" he cried.
"There were no other children like these, so pure, such righteous people," their father added.
"We are the nation of Israel... Our joy belongs to each and every (Jew) - our sadness belongs to each and every one. We are all together."
"From an individual's perspective it is impossible to understand... we lost our children, but the souls of my children live on in my heart and my wife's heart," he continued. "But not just with us - in the hearts of the entire nation... They are there."