For Orthodox Jewish families, the hours from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday are sacred. It’s the Sabbath — a time to obey God’s word and refrain from work to keep the day holy. Because some will not switch on electricity or light a flame during Shabbat, hotplates are an alternative to keep food warm.
But the appliance proved deadly for one Orthodox Jewish family when, in the wee hours on Saturday morning, a faulty one caught fire and sent flames crawling upstairs into the children’s bedrooms in Midwood, a tree-lined neighborhood in Brooklyn. Gayle Sassoon could hear her children crying, but the blaze kept her away. A teenage daughter jumped from an upstairs window, breaking bones when she hit the ground. When Sassoon could not save the others, she jumped, too.
Both Sassoon and her daughter were taken to the hospital and listed in critical condition, suffering burns and smoke inhalation. Her seven other children — four boys and three girls ranging in age from 5 to 16 — never made it out. The children’s father, Gabriel Sassoon, was at a spiritual retreat in Manhattan. He came home to a burned-out brick house and prepared to bury his seven children who died in it.
The news was slow to spread in the Orthodox Jewish community on Saturday morning, since many observing the Sabbath had not yet switched on their telephones, televisions and computers. When they did, some expressed fear about using hotplates in their own homes.
“A lot of people use these hotplates to keep food warm for the next day,” State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents the district, told Reuters. “They put them on Friday and they are left on for the entire Sabbath, 25 hours.”
“I called my own daughter, who has six kids, to tell her to stop using that hot plate,” he added. He told the Hamilton Spectator that Saturday’s fire was an “important wake-up call” because “it may save your life or the life of your children.”
The blaze marked Brooklyn’s fourth deadly fire connected with Jewish observances over the past 15 years, the Jewish Daily Forward reported.
In 2000, a fire broke out in Williamsburg during Shavuot, a Jewish festival marking the giving of the Torah, killing a rabbi’s granddaughter and her 5-month-old child, according to Reuters. Two years later, ritual candles led to two fires in Borough Park that killed three people.
In 2010 in Midwood, a hotplate ignited a fire that killed an 8-year-old boy. It was during Sukkot, a festival five days after Yom Kippur.
“We cannot use fire on the Sabbath,” Midwood resident Dalia Hen, 51, told The Hamilton Spectator. “The only alternative is to use a hotplate. I guess it’s something we should be more aware of — wake up at night and check up on it.”
The New York Fire Department’s Web site outlines precautions for Jewish observances, noting that 50 percent of apartment fires and 25 percent of fires in homes start in the kitchen — a third of which are caused by unattended cooking. “Stay in the kitchen — don’t leave cooking food unattended,” the warning reads.
The Sassoons moved from Israel to Brooklyn about two years ago because Gayle Sassoon wanted to be near family, a neighbor told the New York Times. They moved into the 90-year-old house in which she grew up.
Just after midnight on Saturday, the hotplate in the kitchen started malfunctioning and set the house ablaze.
“I heard a child yelling, ‘Mommy! Mommy, help me!’ ” neighbor Andrew Rosenblatt told reporters, according to the New York Post. Others said Gayle Sassoon pleaded: “My kids are in there! Get them out! Get them out!”
“The mother would have had to go into the fire to get to the back bedrooms, so I think she valiantly tried, although she was badly burned, to get out and get help,” Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro told reporters. “She was very brave.”
Within minutes, firefighters were on the scene. It took more than 100 of them to control the fire. Afterward, they found only one working smoke detector — in the basement. WABC-TV reported the smoke may not have triggered it since the flames shot up to the second floor so quickly.
Firefighters started passing out fire-safety literature and batteries for smoke detectors in the Sassoons’ neighborhood that afternoon, but Sabbath restrictions kept many from taking the material, the New York Times reported.
On Sunday afternoon, Gabriel Sassoon stood beside seven small caskets that held his children.
“I lost everything in the fire,” he said, speaking one-by-one about each of his seven deceased children, according to the Wall Street Journal. “There’s only one way to survive this — it’s complete and total surrender.”
Police identified the victims as Eliane Sassoon, 16; David, 12; Rivkah, 11; Yeshua, 10; Moshe, 8; Sara, 6; and Yaakov, 5. The 15-year-old daughter who survived has been identified as Tziporah, also reported as Siporah.
“Eliane, she came out fighting, even as a child she was all the way going to the maximum,” Gabriel Sassoon said, according to the Wall Street Journal. “Rivkah, she had so much joy, she gave joy to everybody.
“And David, he was so fine. He was truly a gift from Hashem.
“Yeshua was so joyful and creative, always trying to make others happy.
“Moshe was always beaming, he was beaming and he tried so hard because he had learning problems, but he tried so hard,” he said. “And he was an inspiration because he tried so hard.
“Sara was like Eliane, she was the cutest, and Yaakob just wanted everyone to be happy. He was the youngest, he was the clown.”
“They all had faces of angels,” he added.
The bodies will be flown back to Israel on Monday and buried there.
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