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Fatal Bronx fire: Family mourns 'loving' mom and her 'energetic' son

Fatoumata Tunkara, 43, and Omar Jambang, 6, mother

Fatoumata Tunkara, 43, and Omar Jambang, 6, mother and son, died in the Bronx fire on Sunday. Credit: Jantae Susso

Fatoumata Tunkara and her 6-year-old son, Omar Jambang, were visiting the 19-story building in the Bronx where Omar attended day care when a fire broke out in a duplex 17 stories below.

Smoke billowed out from that duplex, through the hallways and up the stairwells, killing the mother and child — two of the fire’s 17 fatalities, each of whom died of smoke inhalation.

"It was kind of like the wrong place at the wrong time," said Jantae Susso, the wife of Tunkara’s cousin, Ansumana Susso.

Omar was among the fire’s youngest victims, according to a roster released by the NYPD. Also among them: a 2-year-old boy and two 5-year-old girls, a family of five, and a husband and wife whose four children have been orphaned.

Many of them are immigrants from West Africa: Gambia and Mali, according to a local imam, Musa Kabba. Others are the U.S.-born members of West African immigrant families.

Sunday’s blaze was sparked by an electric space heater in the second-floor bedroom of the duplex apartment, which a person briefed on the FDNY investigation said had been left on for days.

As the family in that duplex fled, its front door was left fully open, and it failed to self-close as required by New York City law, sending smoke throughout the building, according to the FDNY. The stairway door on 15 also failed to close. Retiring Chief of Department Thomas Richardson said Tuesday that firefighters found multiple stairway doors open.

The occupants of the duplex, where eight to 12 members of a family lived, made it out alive, FDNY spokesman Frank Dwyer said on Tuesday.

About three blocks from the building is Masjid Ar-Rahama, the local mosque where all the victims and their families worshipped, according to Musa Kabba, its imam.

Kabba said that funerals would be in the United States or Africa. Muslim law requires bodies to be cleansed and buried as soon as possible after death.

On Wednesday afternoon, worshippers paid their respects to mourners, extending a hug to Yusupha Jawara, whose sister-in-law, Isatou Jabbie, 31, and brother Hagi Jawara, 47, were among those lost on Sunday.

Jawara and others who knew the victims sometimes spoke of the departed using the present tense. He broke down in tears recounting what made his brother and sister-in-law "the best family members."

"They’re always smiling," Jawara said. "They don’t get angry."

Worshippers also mourned another family, this one of five: Haji Dukuray, 49, his wife, Haja Dukureh, 37, and their three children: Mustapha, 12, Mariam, 11, and Fatoumata, 5, the imam said. All died in Sunday's fire.

"Mustapha is a very smart boy," Kabba said. "He used to come here Saturday and Sunday to learn the religion. Now we miss him."

Kabba said the three Dukureh children attended the mosque on Saturday.

"They’re my students," he said. "This Sunday we didn’t see them."

A married couple who live in the building is suing the owners for at least $1 billion, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday seeking class action status.

The owners had "actual notice of defective conditions" while the plaintiffs and others who lived there had "no negligence," alleges the suit, filed in State Supreme Court in the Bronx, by Rosa Reyes and Felix Martinez.

The suit alleges that building owners failed to ensure that the self-closing door apparatus worked and that smoke detectors properly functioned. It claims that heat was not adequate in the building and smoke alarms would "go off all the time."

In response, the ownership group, Bronx Park Phase III Preservation, LLC, sad it was "devastated" by the tragedy and was "cooperating fully with the Fire Department and other agencies as they continue to investigate."

Some residents are being let back in the building. Others are left to mourn.

Tunkara, 43, leaves behind four children, three in the Bronx and one in her home country of Gambia. She was divorced.

Jantae Susso, 28, of the Bronx, said Tunkara was active in the building's closely knit community.

"She was very kind, loving and caring," Susso said. "She tried to help anybody."

Tunkara grew up in Gambia and came to the United States about 20 years ago "to make a better life for her family."

Her surviving children in the Bronx range in age from 9 to 19; her son in Gambia is 14 years old, Susso said.

Ansumana Susso, 34, of the Bronx, said his cousin was a bright spirit and people loved to be around her.

He recalled that Tunkara was a central figure in the family, helping them to keep in touch on social media while they were scattered between two countries. She helped raise money for other family members when they needed it, he said.

She worked braiding hair, Ansumana Susso added.

Omar loved to play video games on his computer, including "Minecraft." He also loved cars.

"He was very, very energetic," Ansumana Susso said. "You would have to fight with him to get him away from his iPad."

The family is in shock over the tragedy.

"It was something that happened very fast," he said. "Everybody’s grieving."

The family is getting a lot of support from others in the Gambian community.

Ansumana Susso said he is angry over the reported problems with doors that were supposed to automatically close to contain such a fire, but apparently did not.

"This is a complete disaster," he said. "It could have been avoided. I am very, very upset."

The family said it plans to bury the remains of Tunkara and her son in Gambia.

The family struggled financially and the Sussos have started a GoFundMe page to help raise money for them.

As of Wednesday, 15 victims of the fire remained hospitalized in intensive care, according to the FDNY's press office.

One of those still recovering is Aisha Janneh, whose sister Sera died in the fire.

Their relative Mare Janneh said Aisha, 27, is improving.

"She’s doing good. She’s progressing," Mare said, adding that the family is looking forward to when she’s released from the hospital.

"We’re praying soon," Mare said.

With AP

Clarification: An earlier version of this story reported the wrong ages for Fatoumata Tunkara and Omar Janbang, based on incorrect information provided to Newsday by the family.

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