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Mourners hold vigil outside charred Brooklyn home where 7 children died in fire

Many gather and light candles during a vigil

Many gather and light candles during a vigil in front of a family house in Brooklyn on March 22, 2015, where seven siblings were killed in a house fire. Photo Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

Grieving over the deaths of seven children in a Brooklyn house fire continued Sunday night as a large crowd gathered outside the charred Midwood home to pray, light candles and offer words of support for the family as well as firefighters who battled the blaze.

By 7:45 p.m. more than 100 people stood outside the house, which caught fire early Saturday. They stood behind a police barricade as cars drove slowly by. Inside the cars, drivers and passengers shook their heads.

Hours earlier, the children's father, Gabriel Sassoon, choked back tears as he talked about his loss to more than 200 mourners jammed into Shomrei Hadas Chapels in Borough Park for a funeral service.

"They all had faces of angels, Sassoon said of his daughters Eliane, 16, Rivkah, 11, and Sara, 6; and sons David, 12, Yeshua, 10, Moshe, 8, and Yaakob, 5.

His wife, the children's mother, Gayle Sassoon, was listed in critical condition at Jacobi Hospital Sunday night. She and their surviving daughter, Tzipora, 15, jumped to escape the fire from a second-story window of the home.

Sunday night, Mychal McNichols, 74, and his wife looked at the charred remains of the home on the 3300 block of Bedford Avenue in Midwood. The couple came to the vigil from the Rockaways.

McNichols said he didn't know the family, but had to come to show support.

"It's awful," McNichols said.

When asked if the vigil will help the family heal, McNichols said, "I hope to God it does. Can you imagine living the rest of your life losing seven children?"

McNichols said he also was there to support the firefighters who fought their way through the flames only to find the bodies of the seven children.

"I can't imagine what hell they've been going through," he said.

Karen Rosenblatt, who lives in the house behind Sassoon home, said her husband, Andrew, made the 911 call Saturday morning and was still distraught Sunday night.

"My husband can't come, Rosenblatt said. "He was the one who heard [a child calling] 'Mommy, mommy, help.' "

Mourners at the vigil began leaving at 8 p.m.

Gabriel Sassoon, who was away at a religious conference when the fire broke out early Saturday, told those at the funeral his children "know how much I love them."

Their bodies were to be flown to Tel Aviv Sunday night for burial in Israel, where the family had lived up until a year and a half ago.

His children "were unbelievable. They were the best. But the truth is, every child is the best," Gabriel Sassoon told mourners inside the chapel, as well as hundreds more listening on loudspeakers outside.

The house fire was the deadliest in New York City since a March 2007 Bronx fire that killed an adult and nine children.

The fast-moving fire was blamed on a faulty electrical food warming plate. FDNY officials said the plate ignited everything around it in the Sassoon family's kitchen. The fire swept upstairs, where the seven children 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.

Inside the funeral chapel, Sassoon asked for his children's forgiveness.

"I did my best and my wife did her best," he said.

Sassoon then tried to read the names of his children, but broke down crying.

"Too many names," he said.

A man identified by chapel officials as Rabbi David Ozeri spoke after Sassoon.

"An earthquake has hit the Jewish world," he bellowed to those inside the chapel as well as mourners outside listening to the services on a loudspeaker. "In school we now have empty desks."

Ozeri said it was not just Brooklyn's Jewish community coming to terms with such a stunning loss.

He said he got a call Saturday night from a man from Haifa, Israel, who said that when the news reached the synagogue there, "the entire congregation sat down and cried."

Outside the funeral chapel, men wearing yarmulkes and dark overcoats stood and listened as a man recited Hebrew prayers to the crowd over the loudspeaker from inside.

Women stood on the sidewalk and outside a separate entrance to the building. One woman covered her face with her hands and sobbed.

The services ended and seven large SUVs parked behind the chapel slowly moved past barricades and down 14th Avenue, followed by several hundred mourners on foot. Each SUV carried a child's body in a coffin.

Joseph Weinberg, 54, of Borough Park, arrived at the chapel as the funeral was ending.

"We are together, we feel for each other," said Weinberg, who works in real estate. "This is like one family"

Earlier Sunday at the site of the burned-out house, workers hired by New York City boarded up the building while an NYPD officer stood guard.

Nearby a vase of seven long-stemmed, white roses with a large white bow rested on the sidewalk.

Firefighters had reached the house 3 minutes and 25 seconds after a 911 call at 12:23 a.m. Saturday, 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, referring to the firefighters.

He said they "pushed the flames back and when they got up the stairs, they did locate the children, but it was too late."

In the Midwood neighborhood Sunday, the tragedy was in the forefront of residents' minds.

Victor Sedaka, 46, who lives three doors down, said he heard shrieking and saw the mother sitting on a stoop across the street from her burning house, screaming "Save my children! Save my children!" Sedaka didn't recognize her at first because she was covered in soot and blood.

Judy and Moshe Goldring, who live across the street, said they were struck by the bravery of the firefighters who charged into the house filled with flames and thick smoke.

"The fire department, the EMS, the Hatzolah. . . . They were amazing," said Judy Goldring.

"We saw all of it, unfortunately," Moshe Goldring said. "I saw the firemen trying to resuscitate them right in the middle of the street. They charged right in. The place was ablaze. I've never seen anything like it."

He said the father was a yeshiva teacher.

"He was a very private guy. He was very quiet."

Before the funeral, Assemb. Dovid Hikind (D-Brooklyn) said he planned to attend but was anticipating a crush of pain.

"I'm not sure I want to be inside. I'm not sure I can deal with seven coffins. . . . I can't even imagine what that will look like -- seven coffins, seven coffins of children."

Hinkind said "the thing that makes us rich is our children. So to lose seven children in one single family is beyond any kind if comprehension, beyond words. . . . The entire community -- not just Jewish, but way beyond, of course -- everyone with a heart understands what it means to lose a child -- much less seven children -- in an instant."

Midwood resident Shifra Schorr, 44, said Sunday the children's deaths has cast a pall on the community.

"We're heartbroken," said Schorr, who lives a few blocks away. "No one can even talk. . . . We're all mothers."

Schorr, a mother of five who said she is an Orthodox Jew, said the community is discussing fire safety in light of the deadly blaze. A few years ago, she said, a fire broke out at her home during the Sabbath when she left a candle burning on her glass kitchen table and it tipped over.

"My whole tablecloth was on fire," said Schorr. "It was so fast."

She said she doesn't use a hot plate, preferring a crock pot to keep food warm during the weekly Sabbath.

"We're all talking about it," she said, adding that she checked her smoke detector on Saturday.

"It's very, very sad," she said. "It's just heartbreaking. Everyone here has a family and has children, and to have the family ripped away, it's your life. . . . I don't know how the family will go on. But somehow they will. Someone will help. They need strength."

Meanwhile on Avenue M, around the corner from Bedford Avenue, four FDNY trucks were lined up and fire officials huddled nearby offering fire safety education.

The trucks read: "Only Working Smoke Alarms Save Lives."

Izzy Abade, 89, lives across the street and said he's known the mother, whom he described as "nice and courteous" since she was a child.

"Horrible, you can't describe it," said Abade. "It's horrible. There's no way you can even talk about it. It's sickening."

He said the children were often outside playing.

"They used to play right across the street -- riding bikes, playing in the backyard and playing ball," he said. "We prayed a little bit at shul for them just now."

Sunday morning, Mark Zweier, 52, who lives 10 blocks away, was to recite the mourner's kaddish -- a prayer for the dead -- at the Sassoon home.

"They were little kids," Zweier said. "I feel sad what happened."

Dovid Leder, a math teacher at Ateret Torah who worked with three of the Sassoon boys, said they were "the nicest kids, always on time, always did their homework."

Leder, who spoke to a reporter outside of the charred house, said he had classes or tutoring groups with the 8-year-old and 10-year-old, but worked most frequently with 12-year-old David Sassoon.

The boy was a "great student, I can't get over it," Leder said.

Hikind said the tragedy should serve as a safety reminder to Jews using hot plates and other devices during the Sabbath, which he said can be left on in excess of 25 hours.

He said he told his daughter to get rid of her hot plate because the wires looked frayed. Hikind said he keeps his gas on for the Sabbath and uses a blech, a metal plate, to keep food warm.

"This is a wake-up call," Hikind said. "I'm not saying to people, 'Get rid of your hot plate. Throw 'em out.' I'm saying it's worth taking a look."

Dalia Hen stopped by the block Sunday to see the house, a scene that left her in tears.

"We just paid respects and looked directly at the house and feel the sorrow that everybody's feeling," said Hen, 51, of Midwood. "We saw that they're giving out batteries and of course we're going to go home and change our batteries and add more fire smoke alarms to our house."

Hen, who said she's an Orthodox Jew, said because members of the religion cannot use electricity during the Sabbath, "our only alternative is a hot plate."

She said she's used her hot plate and a crock pot "for years" without incident.

Hen said she doesn't know the Sassoon family but, "My heart is breaking for them just the same. We all somehow know each other spiritually. . . . I couldn't help but cry my heart out as I saw the house. Everybody is talking abut it. It's on everybody's mind. It's very painful. It's like our own children."

Judy Benatar, 35, was among the parents who arrived at the scene to discuss fire safety with their young children.

Outside the Sassoon home, she aimed to show her children, a son 14, and daughter, 12, "the aftermath of a fire."

"I came to teach my kids," she said, noting she does not use a hot plate. She uses gas-operated technology with a blech, and said she hopes families are motivated to make sure the methods they use are safe.

She said the circumstances were tragic "for such a nice, loving family," seeking to "keep the Torah laws." She added the community has "got to learn from this and try to move forward."

With Maria Alvarez, Ivan Pereira and Dan Rivoli


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