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News of fire spreads by word-of-mouth in Orthodox Jewish community

Neighbors look at the scene of a deadly

Neighbors look at the scene of a deadly fire in the Midwood neighborhood in Brooklyn on March 21, 2015. Credit: Getty Images / Kena Betancur

In a corner of New York City where most residents observe a Sabbath prohibition on the use of cellphones, televisions and other electronics, news of the deadly fire traveled at the speed of footsteps and whispers.

Little by little Saturday, Orthodox Jewish residents in the Midwood section of Brooklyn pieced together the story that had been making national headlines for hours: Seven children perished in an overnight blaze.

Neighbors in Sabbath suits and dresses stopped one another Saturday on the sidewalks. Others gathered at a corner of Bedford Avenue, near where a two-story, brick house stood windowless and gutted by flames.

"Nobody's watching any TV on the Sabbath or listening to the radio," said one resident, who declined to give his name Saturday afternoon. "It's all word-of-mouth."

Gayle Sassoon, the children's mother, and her 15-year-old daughter, identified in published reports as Tzipora, were the only survivors of the blaze, which officials said started with a malfunctioning food-warming plate.

At Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, where Sassoon was in critical condition Saturday night, rabbis gave family and friends special permission to use their phones to relay the news. Some sobbed as they told friends and relatives of the deaths.

"Everyone loved them," said Janna Levy, a Midwood resident who said she rushed to the hospital after learning of the fire. "They were precious gifts. Beautiful children . . . beautiful."

Neighbors said Sassoon grew up in Midwood, married, moved to Israel, then returned in recent years to the neighborhood to raise four boys and four girls.

The children who died were identified as Eliane, 16; David, 12; Rivkah, 11; Yeshua, 10; Moshe, 8; Sara, 6; and Yaakob, 5. Sassoon's husband, who was away at the time of the fire, was not identified.

The family was supposed to observe this week's Sabbath at Sassoon's parents' home in New Jersey but stayed in Brooklyn because of Friday's snow, said Agit Abeckaser, whose 11-year-old son played with the Sassoon children.

Sassoon married her husband, a devoutly religious man, after a previous marriage failed, said Victor Sedaka, a neighbor. She grew up religious but became more observant as she grew older, he said.

Sassoon's cousin, who lived across the street, helped her care for the children, Sedaka said.

Levy said the family was religious, generous and kind, regularly sending money to relatives in Israel and supporting the Midwood community through volunteer work and charity.

Rose Insel, a next-door neighbor in her 80s, said the children often cleared her walkway of snow. "They used to come with their little shovels and shovel the snow for me without my asking," she said. "I would give them lollipops and they used to thank me so much for those lollipops."

At the hospital, Levy said she didn't know if Sassoon had been told of her children's deaths.

"To go on after this, I don't know how she will," Levy said. "But she is very strong."

She said the visitors would be eating their traditional end-of-Sabbath meal -- which is supposed to be joyous -- at the hospital Saturday night.

"There is no happiness," she said. "Because of this."

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