Four days after seven children died in a fire in a Midwood home, area Jews were grappling with the loss while stocking up on fire safety equipment to keep their families safe.
The fire was caused by a faulty hot plate left on to keep food warm over Shabbat, and a lack of smoke detectors on the first and second floors of the Bedford Avenue house allowed it to spread to the stairwell before anyone woke up, separating the mother from her children, sleeping on the other side of the stairs.
Area residents said the fire served as a wake-up call that brought residents to neighborhood hardware stores in droves.
“Half of our community, the first thing we did was check the fire alarms,” said Israel Shmaya, a 27-year-old yeshiva student who studies hospitality management at night. He came to the site of the fire Tuesday morning to pray for the family.
“Everybody’s taking more precautions. … That way another tragedy doesn’t happen,” he said.
At Corner Hardware & Paint, an Ace Hardware franchise with a large number of Orthodox customers in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, there was “panic” as soon as the doors opened on Sunday morning, a manager said. Customers were buying batteries for smoke detectors and ladders for reaching out-of-the-way detectors, and asking questions about fire extinguishers and safe ways to heat food on Shabbat.
On Tuesday morning, two of the four shelves holding smoke detectors were bare. “There aren’t many left,” an employee said. “People have been buying them.” In front of the register a display of crock-pots and hot plates remained.
Rabbi Yosef Rapaport, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, said a small Borough Park housewares store told him it sold more than 20 smoke detectors in one day.
“If we multiply that to other similar establishments in Orthodox areas, it could be considered sort of a buying spree,” he said via email.
At the Flatbush Minyan, a prominent Orthodox congregation less than a mile away from the site of the fatal fire, Rabbi Meir Fund said he will devote part of his sermon this Saturday to matters of fire safety.
“Everyone was jolted by this,” he said.
There have been other fatal fires in Brooklyn’s Orthodox communities in recent years, but never of this magnitude. In 2000, a Shavuot fire in Williamsburg killed two people and two fires in Borough Park in 2002 killed three. In 2011, 13 people in Teaneck, N.J., were hospitalized for symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning after a defective stove was left on for two days during Shavuot.
But seven deaths in a single family in a single fire are unprecedented here.
“Never, these type of numbers,” said Louis Welz, CEO of Flatbush’s Council of Jewish Organizations. “When do you hear these types of numbers?” he asked, leaving the rhetorical question unanswered.
In the wake of the fire, several local Jewish organizations have begun fire safety education efforts.
The Flatbush COJO, in partnership with City Councilmember Chaim Deutsch, this week began an extensive fire safety campaign in the neighborhood, including a community-wide educational program, and the distribution of free carbon monoxide detectors.
The Jewish Community Relations Council is reaching out to day schools to encourage fire safety education in the classrooms and the New York Board of Rabbis is urging member congregations to distribute pre-Passover fire safety guidelines. And about 100 leaders of local Jewish organizations attended the annual FDNY safety briefing at the Department’s Brooklyn headquarters on Monday.
“This tragedy has taken the matter [of fire safety] to a new level. There is going to be a collective response,” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the board’s executive vice president and the Fire Department’s Jewish chaplain.
Over the weekend, the New York Fire Department took to the streets of Brooklyn, distributing 200 smoke alarms, 16,000 batteries and hundreds of fire safety pamphlets in English and Yiddish.
Chai Lifeline organized a community gathering called “Making Sense of the Midwood Tragedy: Talking to Your Children, Understanding it Yourself,” launched a 24-hour helpline ( 855-3274) and posted guidelines for how parents could talk to their children about the tragedy on its website.
Agudath Israel’s Rabbi Rapaport said via email that the city needs to find new ways to get safety information to charedi families who “avoid general secular media, such as TV and secular mass circulation newspapers.”
In such charedi enclaves as Rockland County’s Monsey, and Lakewood and Passaic, N.J., rabbis were encouraging their members to install fire safety equipment in their homes and drill family members on fire safety procedures.
In the week before Passover, when many families conduct a pre-holiday burning of chometz items, and when large numbers of holiday candles are often lit in the home during the first days and last days of the holiday, these warning are especially timely, Jewish leaders said.
During Shabbat and major holidays, observant Jews, in accordance with the prohibition against turning on an oven or electrical device, will keep food warm using a “blech,” a metal sheet that covers a low-burning stove burner, or appliances such as crockpots and hot plates that are kept on throughout the period or switched on by a pre-set timer. These devices usually function without a problem; but when they don’t, the result can be fatal. Sparks from overloaded electrical outlets have also caused fires.
Members of the Orthodox community “are not going to change their operations” but they “are going to be a little more careful,” said Rabbi Hertz Frankel, a longtime administrator in the Satmar chasidic school system and frequent spokesman for the wider charedi community.
Several Midwood women interviewed Tuesday morning in front of the burned home agreed that hot plates and crockpots are not going away.
“Using hot plates, I don’t think this it’s going to stop, but I do think people are going to look into safer alternatives,” said Chana Kramer, who came to pray and write a note of condolence outside the boarded up two-story house at 3371 Bedford Ave. near Avenue L.
Rose, a Midwood mother of four who preferred that we only use her first name, stopped by the house a few minutes later. She said that while people are all for adding smoke detectors and other early warning systems, serving their families warm food over Shabbat was a must.
“Fire alarms, maybe, but calls [saying] ‘don’t use your hot plate’ — if it’s working properly, how else [can you keep food warm]? I think the hot plate is safer than the blech. … I never knew this could happen with a hot plate,” she said.
The fire was also marked in the wider community. The Brooklyn Nets basketball team had a moment of silence before the team’s game Monday night and a makeshift memorial in front of the Sassoon home included offerings from both Jewish and non-Jewish residents.
Tony, who owns several apartment buildings in the area and asked that we only use his first name, brought over a bouquet of seven white roses on Sunday, and then returned to the home again to pay his respects on Tuesday. “It’s a tragedy. I can’t fathom it,” he said.
The tragedy galvanized the Orthodox community, both in Borough Park, where a funeral ceremony took place on Sunday at Borough Park’s Shomrei Hadas Chapels, and on Monday at Jerusalem’s Har HaMenuchot cemetery, where the Sassoon children were buried.
Hundreds of mourners crowded into the Brooklyn chapel, and into the surrounding streets, as Gabriel Sassoon, an Israeli who had come to the United States two years ago, eulogized his children — Elaine, 16; David, 12; Rivkah, 11; Yeshua, 10; Moshe, 8; Sara, 6; and Yaakob, 5.
Similarly, hundreds of people (thousands, according to some estimates) attended the Jerusalem burial in which Mayor Nir Barkat and Chief Rabbi David Lau participated. In his graveside eulogy, Gabriel Sassoon asked God why one korban, or sacrifice, from his family was not sufficient. Why, asked Sassoon, did He take seven?
Gabriel Sassoon was away from home at a religious conference when the fire took place. The two survivors of the blaze, Gayle Sassoon, Gabriel’s wife, and Siporah, the couple’s 15-year-old daughter were in critical condition early this week in area hospitals, being treated for burns and smoke inhalation.
The people who came for solitary prayer in front of the Bedford Avenue home Tuesday Morning said the tragedy affected them deeply.
“It wasn’t easy to come. I’m a mother, a fairly new mother. It’s shocking. It kind of hits you with a certain reality about what can happen,” said Kramer.
Shmaya, the 27-year-old yeshiva student, said he came to the house Tuesday morning to say Tehillim “for the people who are still alive, that they should have a bit of peace” and Mishnayot, “for the souls who are already passed away.”
“It just shook the community,” he said. “It shook us to a point where: We can’t do anything about it, they’re gone. So the only thing we could do is do good things in the name of their souls, so that way they rest in heaven in a good place.”
Rose also stood in front of the boarded up house, still smelling faintly of smoke, and prayed.
"The hardest part of all of this is what they [the family] may be going through. When one person in Am Yisrael is suffering, we're all suffering,” she said.
She said 10-year-old Yeshua was her son’s bus monitor. When he learned of the tragedy, the 6-year-old said, “Did his mommy know he was my bus monitor? He was such a good bus monitor, he always used to give me candy. I want to tell her that,” she said.
Her nephew, who was in the same class with 8-year-old Moshe, “was crying all day Shabbos — he was crying his eyes out,” she said.
And on Sunday her daughter wouldn’t let her out of sight. “It’s just so scary," she said. "For the first two nights. I brought my kids into my room.
“You appreciate your kids [more],” she added. “Even when they’re driving you crazy, you’re like, ‘thank God, they’re alive, they’re here and they’re breathing.”
After the fire, a friend in Israel told her about going to the Sassoon family for a Shabbat dinner.
“The mother was such a aishet chayil [woman of valor],” the friend told Rose. “She was in the kitchen serving, the kids were helping, the table was filled with zemirot [Shabbat songs] and divrei Torah [Torah discussions]. They were such a happy, nice family. Everyone used to go to them for Shabbat.”
Miriam Lichtenberg contributed to this report from Israel.