Seven haredi siblings were killed Friday night when an untended Shabbat hotplate sparked a fire that destroyed their house – a house that had no smoke alarms on the first and second floors, where the sleeping children were trapped by flames and smoke.
Horrific: Seven Haredi Children Killed In Brooklyn Home Fire Sparked By Shabbat Hot Plate; Lack Of Smoke Alarms Likely Contributed To Deaths
Ashley Peterson-Jones and Shmarya Rosenberg • FailedMessiah.com
Seven haredi siblings were killed Friday night when an untended special Shabbat hotplate or blech – it is not clear which – sparked a fire that destroyed their house. The Daily News attributed the fire to a "hotplate" as did the New York Post and Newsday. But the New York Times reported that the description of the device by the Fire Department was unclear, and that the "hotplate" could have been a blech.
The house had no smoke detectors on the first floor where the fire started or on the second floor where the family slept and where all the dead children were trapped by flames.
A neighbor, 65-year-old Andrew Rosenblatt, was in his home on East 26th Street located diagonally behind the rear of the burned house, called 911 to report the fire.
One of the few non-Orthodox Jews left in the heavily haredi neighborhood, Rosenblatt, who affiliates as a Conservative Jew, was in his computer room when he heard a child's voice crying, "Mommy, mommy! Help me!"
Rosenblatt told Newsday he looked out the window to see what was wrong and saw thick black smoke and flames poring out of the rear of the burning home. It was 12:23 am. Rosenblatt immediately called 911.
When he looked outside again after completing the call, the firefighters had already arrived.
By 12:35 am the fire had escalated to two alarms. It took more than 100 firefighters close to an hour to bring under control.
Halakha (Orthodox Jewish law) prohibits Jews from cooking or adjusting existing flames on the Sabbath. To get around this prohibition, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews (haredim; hasidim) use specially modified electric hotplates or a special stove-modifying device known as a blech to keep food warm.
The device that sparked the fire could have been one of those specially modified hotplates or a metal sheet that is placed over a stove's burners before the Sabbath begins known as a blech. Both types of devices are used by Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews to keep food placed on them before the Sabbath begins warm throughout the Sabbath.
People often cover pots of food that have been placed on these devices with a cloth or towel to help hold in the heat, although it is unclear if this was the case with this fire.
Electric hotplates specially made for Sabbath use either lack any heat controls at all or have them covered with a shield. In the same way, a blech covers not only a stove's burners, but also covers the stove's burner controls to prevent someone from accidentally adjusting a flame.
Firefighters were reportedly at the house Saturday within three minutes of receiving the 12:23 am phone call and worked frantically to save the seven children, but to no avail. The brothers, ages 5, 6, 7 and 11, and their 8-, 12- and 15-year-old sisters were all killed in what is reportedly New York City’s deadliest fire in almost a decade.
The dead children’s mother and her 14-year-old daughter broke through second floor windows and jumped to safety. Both were critically injured with burns and smoke inhalation. They were unable to save younger children, who were all trapped in upstairs bedrooms.
The children’s father was away at a conference and was not located until late Saturday morning.
Neighbors described the family as being "very religious" and "ultra-Orthodox," the New York Post reported. The family had lived in Israel since 1998 and had only relatively recently returned to Brooklyn to live.
A child’s cries of, “Mommy, Mommy, help me!” were reportedly heard by neighbors as the house burned.
After she jumped, the mother reportedly screamed for help and pleaded for people to rescue her children. She is now reportedly in a hyperbaric chamber in a Bronx hospital.
The home, which is totally destroyed, is located at 3371 Bedford Avenue near Ave. L in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn.
The hot plate malfunctioned and started the blaze on a surface in the kitchen, FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro reportedly said, adding that firefighters fought their way through flames and acrid smoke to find the seven children, who were all trapped in their bedrooms in the rear of the house with no smoke alarms to alert them to the fire.
The 8-year-old girl was pronounced dead at the scene.
The 5-year-old boy and his 6-year-old brother died later at Beth Israel Hospital.
The 7-year-old and 11-year-old boys died at Community Hospital, as did their 12-year-old sister.
The seventh sibling, a 15-year-old girl, was pronounced dead at Maimonides Hospital.
A list of the dead children, their ages and their names released by the FDNY later in the day does not match earlier reporting, and it is unclear which child died at which location.
According that more recent list, the dead children, all members of the Sassoon family, as Eliane, 16, Rivkah, 11, David, 12, Yeshua, 10, Moshe, 8, Sara, 6, and Yaakob, 5.
The mother, who is in critical condition in a special burn unit at a Bronx hospital, is identified as Gayle Sassoon. She grew up in the house, moved to Israel in 1998 after marrying, and moved back to the house she grew up with her children and husband approximately two years ago. Her surviving daughter, who is in critical condition in a burn unit of another hospital in the city, has not been identified.
Speaking earlier at the fire scene, FDNY Commissioner Nigro noted fire investigators found no smoke detectors on the first or second floors of house. The only smoke detector located in the entire house was in the basement – two floors below the bedrooms where the family was sleeping when the fire started.
Having smoke detectors on the first and second floors “may have alerted the family to the fire” and thereby saved the children’s lives, Nigro noted, adding that "to hear a smoke detector two floors below is asking a lot.… As folks keep food warm over the course of the Sabbath, unattended appliances can be dangerous,. We’ll look for help from the community and will offer advice on how people can observe the Sabbath and do it safely.”
But the haredi community has repeatedly been noncompliant.
Even though the dangerous circumcision procedure metzitzah b’peh (MBP), the direct mouth-to-bleeding-penis sucking done by many haredi mohels after cutting of the baby’s foreskin, has killed and maimed babies, the haredi community has refused to stop do it – or even to inform haredi community members of its documented dangers. Other Jewish communities (and even some part of the non-hasidic haredi community) gave up the dangerous practice almost 200 years ago. But hasidic leaders insisted that banning the practice would be giving in to "reformers" who were trying to change Judaism, and the dangerous practice continued unabated in their communities and is now backed by Agudath Israel of America, the largest haredi umbrella organization in the US representing almost all of the hasidic and non-hasidic haredi community, and by the Satmar and Chabad hasidic movements, neither of wich are part of Agudath Israel.
Throughout haredi enclaves in Rockland County, New York just north of New York City, firefighters have threatened to refuse to fight fires in haredi neighborhoods and villages because of the large amount of illegal and unsafe construction and related issues, from exit doors to homes chained shut to rooms cut in two or three by illegal walls, blocking exists and stairs and endangering both residents and fire fighters.
And various communicable diseases like measles have spread through haredi communities to to their high density, large number of children, questionable public hygiene practices like sharing towels in places like mens mikvahs (ritual baths frequented even by young children) and in yeshivahs, and an alarming rise in the number of families who refuse to vaccinate their children.
Earlier today, Lieutenant Bruce Silas of the FDNY’s Fire Safety Education Unit sat at a table outside in the cold on a sidewalk not far from the Sasoon’s burned house passing out fire safety information and free 9-volt batteries for smoke detectors.
Silas told the New York Times many people from the neighborhood asked him about the safety of using hot plates on the Sabbath.
“We recommend that they don’t [use those hotplates or blechs]. But religion is one thing, and fire safety is very difficult to enforce,” Silas said.
Many of those who stopped did not take a battery or the fire safety information with them, because halakha (Orthodox Jewish law) prohibits then from carrying items on the Sabbath, and even for those who view the area as being enclosed in a proper eruv (a halakhic legal fiction that turns a public area into a private one for purposes of allowing Orthodox and haredi Jews to carry on the Sabbath), a battery is considered to be muktseh – a category of item that cannot even be touched, let alone carried, on the Sabbath.
While devices like blechs or other similar ways of keeping food warm may have been used by some Jews before it, the rise of the Karaite movement in the early Middle Ages prompted rabbis who were threatened by the rapid growth of what they considered to be a heretical Jewish movement to mandate that rabbinic Jews to eat warm food on the Sabbath day to distinguish themselves from the Karaites and show their fealty to the "true" path of God. Karaites understand the Torah prohibition against kindling fire on the Sabbath to mean any use of fire at all, and therefore they did not – and for the most part, still do not – eat any warm food on the day of the Sabbath.
[Hat Tips: Dr. Rofeh-Filosof; WSC.]