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N.Y. fire kills 8 youths, 1 adult

African immigrants grieve after a Bronx blaze, one of the city's deadliest in decades. At least 17 are injured.

March 09, 2007|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — A Bronx neighborhood filled with African immigrants struggled Thursday to cope with the tragedy of a fire that swept through a crowded home the night before, killing eight children and one adult and injuring at least 17 others. It was one of the city's deadliest blazes in decades.

As firefighters picked through the rubble of the four-story home, several blocks from Yankee Stadium, they said they had responded quickly to the call for help from the late-night fire. But by the time they arrived, several children and one adult lay dead on the ground, alongside injured victims.

Minutes earlier, frantic neighbors reportedly had been trying to catch children who were thrown out of the building's top windows by their mother, who was said to have jumped to her death.

The three-alarm blaze in the Highbridge neighborhood was extinguished two hours later, officials said. There were at least 22 people living in the small house, which had been split into apartments; all were members of an extended family of immigrants from the West African nation of Mali.

"It's terrible for anyone to perish like this, and sometimes it's more painful and unfair when it's children who died," Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said Thursday at a news conference near the still-smoldering building. "When children die, everyone who loved them dies a little bit as well. And sadly, there are a lot of injuries from this fire too."

Neighbors described a chaotic scene shortly after fire engulfed the building on one of the coldest nights of the year. A witness who identified himself only as Andre told reporters that a woman appeared in the window, screaming, "My children, my God!" shortly before she threw two children to people below, and then jumped herself. "It was a terrible scene, she fell to the ground and broke her leg, and then began bleeding profusely," he said.

Neighbor Elaine Martin said she saw another woman, barefoot and wearing only a nightgown, on the street. She was cold and trembling. "My kids is in there, my kids is in there," Martin recalled the woman as saying. As she screamed, several children jumped from the building.

Of the children killed, seven were boys and one was a girl; two were infants; and all were younger than 10, officials said. Among the dead, witnesses said, were the wife and three children of Mamadou Soumare, a cab driver who rushed to the scene after receiving a cellphone call. Five other children who died were reportedly from the family of Moussa Magassa, a businessman who was away in Mali. After receiving the grim news, he headed back for the city Thursday.

Friends and family members kept vigil at several hospitals where victims were taken. Several of the injured, including three children younger than 8, remained in critical condition. Bourema Niambele, a member of a Malian immigrants group, visited with family members at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx. "When something like this happens, all you can do is believe in God," he told reporters. "That's all you can do. You try to figure out how to go on, what it means."

Bloomberg said the cause of the fire, still under investigation, appeared to have been a space heater that was plugged into an overheated power strip near a mattress in the basement. The building did not appear to have any code violations, but there were no fire escapes, and the two smoke detectors were not operating because they did not have batteries, the mayor said.

Victims may have lost precious seconds after the fire broke out because they tried to extinguish it instead of immediately calling 911, officials said. When they fled the building, they did not close the basement door, allowing the fire to spread to upper floors, where people were trapped in their bedrooms.

Hours after the fire was put out, neighbors milled around the scene. Windows had been broken out, and charred pieces of wood and other rubble were piled up on the front porch. The house at 1022 Woodycrest Ave. is in a mostly residential neighborhood with several small businesses.

"What could have mitigated or perhaps prevented the loss of life and injuries was that people should call 911 instantly in a situation like this," Bloomberg said. "Close the door if there's a fire, and contain it. And smoke detectors aren't useful unless they have batteries and are operating properly."

Apart from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Thursday's fire was the deadliest in New York City since the 1990 blaze at the Happy Land social club, also in the Bronx, which killed 87 people, Bloomberg noted.

The Highbridge fire, he said, "was one small building, but one very large tragedy for our city."

josh.getlin@latimes.com

Times researcher Lynn Marshall contributed to this report.

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