On Sunday night, the sixth night of Hanukkah, the Azan family lit a large menorah in the living room window of their Brooklyn home, neighbors said. The menorah burned with oil, commemorating how in about 200 B.C. a tiny bit of oil miraculously kept a Temple’s menorah lit for eight days, according to Jewish tradition.
At some point in the night, the family’s six children, their parents and a cousin fell asleep. The menorah was left burning, unattended.
Then, at about 2 a.m., flames and smoke enveloped the home. The blaze, ignited by the menorah, spread from the first floor, to the second floor, to the attic, fire officials said. Raging through the open stairways, it trapped three family members as they slept on the second floor — the mother, 39-year-old Aliza Azan, and three of her young children, police said.
The father, identified by local news outlets as Yosi Azan, 45, managed to escape the second floor, helping two teenagers jump off the front roof. Two other younger boys, who had been sleeping toward the back of the home’s first floor, fled through a side door.
The father, severely burned, tried to go back in to save the rest of his family, but couldn’t, Daniel A. Nigro, the New York City fire commissioner, said in a news conference.
Firefighters arrived at the home in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn less than three minutes after a neighbor reported the blaze. But by the time they got there, the flames met them at the home’s front door.
Upstairs, they found Aliza Azan dead, along with her three children, Moshe Azan, 11; Yitzah Azan, 7; and Henrietta Azan, 3, police said.
The father and two teenagers were taken to a hospital in critical condition. At least one of the teenagers suffered a broken pelvis from jumping off the roof. The two younger boys, who escaped through a side door, are in stable condition, Nigro said.
Yosi Azan “acted very courageously and tried desperately,” Nigro said. “Hopefully it didn’t cost him his life . . . but it may.”
Fire officials said a smoke alarm was activated on the first floor, alerting the two younger boys to evacuate the home. Officials have not yet identified any other smoke detectors on the other floors.
The cause of the three-alarm fire, fire marshals announced, was accidental, sparked by an “unattended lit menorah.” The menorah’s small glass cups may have cracked due to extended exposure to heat, causing the oil to spill and flames to spread, a fire official told the New York Times.
Azan was placed on a respirator Monday at Staten Island University Hospital, and was unable to speak to relatives and friends who had shown up to pray, a family friend, Pini Shaool, 46, told the New York Daily News.
“He opened his eyes and recognized his cousin. So hopefully he’ll get better,” Shaool said. “His breathing is difficult.”
The deaths — four in one family — struck at the heart of Brooklyn’s Jewish community in the midst of the Festival of Lights, a time meant for celebration, not mourning.
The Azans are Syrian Jews who came to the United States from Israel about 15 years ago, the New York Times reported. Aliza Azan’s father, Avraham Hamra, is the former chief rabbi of the Syrian Jews and moved to Israel more than 10 years ago, according to the New York Daily News. Her brother is a leader in Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish community.
Yosi Azan has worked for many years at a shop called the Hat Box on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, where he steams and mends high-end black felt headpieces worn by Orthodox Jews.
“Just yesterday, I spent an hour and a half with him buying stuff for my kids,” friend Moises Katz told ABC 7. “It’s just a shock.”
“We know them very well,” family friend and neighbor Alan Sokol told the New York Daily News. “Our community couldn’t even work here today. We walked around like zombies.”
The deadly blaze underscored the heightened risk of fires that comes during the winter months and holiday season, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.
“Over the last couple days, several other major fires have caused many injuries — some very serious — and displaced others from their homes,” de Blasio said. “During the holiday season, we all need to be cautious with decorations, electric lights, candles, space heaters and other items.”
Nigro cautioned families of all faiths not to leave candles unattended as they celebrate their holidays.
“The time of year makes it that much sadder, and our traditions open us up to more possibilities,” Nigro said in a news conference, telling families to “celebrate, but celebrate safely.”
“At this time of year . . . it just tears your heart out,” he said.
Josh Mehlman, the chairman of the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition, told NY 1 the minimum time a menorah should be lit is a half-hour.
“Some people put it out after that time,” he said. “If they have to leave, some people leave it till it burns out. But it’s always best to not ever leave it unintended.”
The Monday morning fire also stirred memories of a 2015 blaze that killed seven siblings from an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn. The fire was caused by a faulty hot plate the family had been using to keep food warm during the Sabbath, the sacred day of the week when some Jewish families refrain from using electricity or lighting a flame.
At the time of that tragedy, Yosi Azan posted on Facebook that he knew the family.
“It’s something you can’t understand. Three of the kids are studying with my kids.”
The mother of the children killed in the 2015 fire, Gayle Sassoon, called the New York Board of Rabbis executive vice president to ask what she could do to help the Azan family, AM New York reported.
In a Monday evening menorah-lighting ceremony inside Brooklyn Borough Hall, those present honored the Azan family with a moment of silence.
Later in the night, mourners gathered on the street in front of Shevet Achim, a Brooklyn synagogue, for a memorial procession. Escorted by police vehicles, the bodies of the four deceased family members arrived. A sea of people surrounded the hearse and cars, some of them chanting and praying, others wailing, videos show.
However, there was no funeral held inside the synagogue, and no eulogies were delivered. Certain mourning ceremonies are limited during Hanukkah. The family planned to fly the bodies to Israel to be buried.
One mourner told ABC 7 the night was “very painful.”
“The brothers were falling apart, the whole family is falling apart,” he told ABC 7. “They are an amazing family.”
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