A fast-spreading fire caused by a faulty electrical food-warming plate killed seven children sleeping in their Brooklyn home early Saturday while their mother and sister leaped to safety.
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 the 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."
Officials identified the dead as sisters Eliane, 16; Rivkah, 11; and Sara, 6; along with brothers David, 12; Yeshua, 10; Moshe, 8; and Yaakob, 5.
Mom, sister critically hurt
The mother, Gayle Sassoon, and her 15-year-old daughter, identified in published reports as Tzipora, were critically injured, but were both able to escape the burning home in the Midwood neighborhood by jumping 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.
Andrew Rosenblatt was in his home on nearby East 26th Street when he heard a child's voice cry out: "Mommy, mommy! Help me!"
Rosenblatt, 65, looked out the window of his computer room and saw thick, black smoke and flames leaping from the rear of the Sassoon home, which backs up diagonally to his property.
He called 911, he said, and when he looked outside again, firefighters were already there.
"I saw a lot of brave firefighters going inside," he said. "It's a horrible thing. You never think it's going to happen so close."
One of the children died at the scene, NYPD officials said. Another died at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn; two children died at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan; and three children died at New York Community Hospital in Brooklyn, authorities said.
Gayle Sassoon and her surviving daughter were taken to hospitals with special burn units -- Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx and Staten Island University Hospital North, police said.
A family friend at Jacobi, Janna Levy, said that when she first heard about the deaths, "I felt like I had no breath. That's how we feel."
'So many lost'
NYPD officials initially had difficulty reaching the children's father, who was away at a religious conference, but he was later located, FDNY spokesman Jim Long said. His name was not released.
Mayor Bill de Blasio toured the home for about 20 minutes Saturday afternoon.
"It is unimaginable what you see in there. You can literally see what was a home for a large and strong family and now it is wiped out," de Blasio said. "Every room empty and burned and charred and you can only imagine this beautiful, vibrant family 24 hours ago intact. And now so many lost and two clinging to life."
FDNY officials were meeting with local Jewish leaders to discuss safety issues about using unattended heating appliances but still respecting the Sabbath.
Nigro said there was no sign of smoke detectors on the first and second floors of the home. One working smoke alarm was found in the basement, but because smoke rises, it probably would not have gone off early enough to sound a warning. Even if it did, it may not have been heard from two floors above, Nigro said.
All of the victims suffered burns and smoke inhalation, but causes of death have not been determined.
One firefighter suffered minor injuries while battling the blaze, a fire official said. It was unclear whether he was treated at a hospital.
A neighbor, who did not want to give her name, said she was jolted awake by the fire engine noise and came outside to see what was happening. "I saw them carry out the last person. They [rescuers] kept looking, looking, looking," she said. "Somebody said there was one more. They were here so long," she said of firefighters.
Nigro said responding firefighters were heartsick at the horror they came upon.
"It's difficult to find one child in a room during a search," Nigro said. "To find a house full of children that can't be revived, I'm sure this will take its toll on our members for quite some time."