03.03.10

Save My Baby

With their apartments on fire, two New York mothers went to the window with infant children in their arms. Then came an impossible choice.

On January 30, two-month-old Maria Chan, of Brooklyn, was thrown from a third-story window by her parents in a bid to save her from an apartment fire. Barely two weeks later, the same surreal nightmare—a baby in mid-air—was repeated. There, in a photograph in the New York Daily News, was seven-month-old Zaniyah Hewitt, of the Bronx, dangling out from a fifth-story window as smoke belched out behind her. The only thing that makes telling the stories of Maria and Zaniyah bearable is that both girls escaped alive, though only one of their mothers would survive.

Zaniyah Hewitt’s mother, Saschelle, was taking a shower when the fire began at her apartment on February 15. “I heard yelling, screaming, ‘Fire!’” Hewitt told me the other day. The Hewitts’ apartment is in the Pelham Parkway Houses, a red-brick housing project in the Bronx. When she heard the screams, Hewitt rushed out of the shower and smelled smoke. The events that led to her baby being hung out of the window “happened real quick,” Hewitt said. “It was like a blink of an eye.”

“I can’t believe that my baby is hanging out that window,” a mother from the Bronx said.

The apartment descended into chaos. Hewitt grabbed her 2-year-old daughter, Neveah. Her cousin, Vanessa Scott, grabbed Zaniyah. There were six others in the apartment at the time, and all began frantically searching for an escape.

Hewitt is a 22-year-old aspiring medical assistant. She is soft-spoken and has big eyes and a social life circumscribed by two young children. We sat in a McDonald’s near the family’s apartment while she narrated the events. The source of the fire was somewhere near the front door, forcing the family to the windows. “We was just breaking out windows, punching out every window,” Hewitt recalled. But the windows didn’t offer much help. It was too high to jump from, and some of the windows were blocked by metal window guards, which a city law requires for every apartment that has a child under 10 years old. The family was trapped.

Hewitt was in a bedroom with Michel Alexandre, the father of her daughters, tending to Neveah, their oldest. She left them to check on Zaniyah, who was in another room. She thinks she couldn’t have been gone more than a moment or two. When she returned, the heat and smoke had gotten so bad that Alexandre had jumped out of the window. He was lying motionless on the pavement below, she remembers, and she could see blood. She thought he was dead.

By then, the smoke was so bad that Zaniyah was having trouble breathing. So her cousin Vanessa picked up Zaniyah and somehow maneuvered the infant through the window guard’s bars. “My baby’s so little that she got through the bars,” Hewitt told me. “Thank God she got through.” Vanessa held the baby with one arm, as in the climactic scene of a summer movie. That was the moment a neighbor snapped the photo that appeared in the Daily News.

Hewitt reached into her bag, pulled out a copy of the paper, and slid it across the table. The photo had been the source of fame and some consternation: It made it look as if Vanessa were trying to drop the baby. But Hewitt insisted her cousin was acting heroically. “I think that is the bravest thing anybody could ever do,” Hewitt said.

“My cousin’s holding the baby, but she’s also gasping for breath,” she continued. “Look at her right there.” It was true: Her face was wedged between the bars and her mouth was wide open.

Back in the apartment, Zaniyah may have been suspended five stories above the ground, but the infant wasn’t Hewitt’s biggest worry. In the pandemonium, 2-year-old Neveah had gotten away from Hewitt and toddled toward the fire at the front of the apartment—she seemed to walk right through the flames, Neveah told her astonished mother later. But then the firemen arrived, and the family finally began its escape. Zaniyah was carried down a ladder. Neveah, Hewitt learned later, was taken out the front door. Hewitt hadn’t had time to get dressed after the shower, so she crawled onto a ladder with only her underwear on.

Little Zaniyah was the only member of the family released from the hospital that same day. Miraculously, Alexandre walked away from his five-story fall with only a broken nose and a broken wrist. And 2-year-old Neveah escaped with a second-degree burn on her face. When I met Hewitt, her mother, Kay, was still in the hospital in a medically induced coma. It was a medical nightmare that had become a bureaucratic one: Kay’s name was on the apartment lease, so the family’s efforts to get new housing had been stymied.

“I can’t believe that my baby is hanging out that window,” Hewitt said.

If the firemen hadn’t arrived in time, and if there had been no other choice, would she have had the courage to toss Zaniyah to the street below?

“That never crossed my mind,” Hewitt said.

Then she considered the question for the a few moments. After a time, she said, “I don’t think I could throw my baby out the window.”

* * * *

Luisa Ordoñez Chan, of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, probably never thought she’d have to throw one of her babies out of the window, either. Luisa and her husband, Miguel, are Guatemalan immigrants, and their apartment building on 86th Street was full of Guatemalan men who rented beds for a few hours each day between jobs like delivering pizza or installing air conditioners. The Chans had met back in Central America. Between the time that Miguel arrived in New York, about 15 years ago, and Luisa arrived, about five years ago, they maintained their relationship long distance.

The night of the fire, Miguel opened the door that led from the bedroom to the hallway and found it filled with smoke. Much like Saschelle Hewitt’s apartment, the Chans’ windows were blocked by child-safety bars. But Miguel managed to smash the glass and climb out of the upper half of the window, over the window guard, and balance himself outside. He was three stories from the ground. He saw friends from the building gathered on the pavement below.

Miguel thought he had no choice but to throw 2-month-old Maria. Later, the Chans’ pastor, Erick Salgado, told me the decision reminded him of the biblical story of Jochebed dropping baby Moses into a basket in the Nile—a grave risk undertaken as a last hope. The metaphor is grandiose, but Luisa Chan was the kind of person with whom it would have resonated. She was one of the most eager parishioners at Jovenes Cristianos Evangelical Church in Bensonhurst. The church has two weekend services, because most of the Guatemalans who attend Jovenes Cristianos have Jewish employers (and thus are free to worship on Saturday nights) or Italian employers (and thus can get off on Sundays). Miguel and Luisa typically attended both services; Luisa refused to be a live-in maid, like most of the women at Jovenes Cristianos, because it would mean missing services.

The Sunday before the fire, Reverend Salgado had given a sermon about the Haitian earthquake in which he told his congregation that they should be ready for the afterlife. After hearing that, Luisa dreamt of a great disaster. She told Miguel about her dream, and that she was prepared for whatever came next.

Standing on the window guard that night, Miguel took baby Maria from Luisa and strapped her into a car seat. Then he threw the baby to a friend below. The car seat slipped through the friend’s hands, and the right side of Maria’s head smashed against the street.

The flames and smoke were getting worse, so Luisa quickly handed Miguel their son, Josias, who is 2 years old. Miguel was prepared to throw him to the street as well, but just then, a neighbor appeared at the window one floor below. Miguel handed Josias to the neighbor, and the man gently lowered Josias to the street. According to Salgado, that Samaritan was later discovered to be Daniel Ignacio, the resident who had allegedly started the fire and told a reporter that the “devil” made him do it.

The fire department had arrived by the time Josias was lowered to the ground. Miguel got on a ladder and begged Luisa to follow him. He was holding her hand through the window. She said she couldn’t. It had gotten frighteningly hot inside the apartment, and making it up and over the bars was more than she could bear. Luisa fainted and let go of Miguel’s hand. The firemen told Miguel they had to come down the ladder, which he did reluctantly, assuming, or perhaps hoping, that someone would rescue Luisa.

On Friday, February 19, at a chapel on a dark block in Coney Island, a large congregation from the neighborhood turned out for a memorial service for Luisa and four other building residents who had died in the fire. Little Maria was still in the hospital with a fractured skull; she was still having trouble with her right eye. The service had been pushed back to 6 p.m., so that members of Jovenes Cristianos could come after work. By 6:30, the sanctuary was filled and the doors were propped open, so that the crowd of men in black leather jackets with their hair slicked back with pomade, and women with black winter coats with imitation fur collars could worship in the lobby. By 7:30, when the hymns started, even the lobby was full.

Luisa’s last words to Miguel, reprinted in the newspapers, seemed to reverberate throughout the funeral home. Take care of the children.

Author's note: Saschelle Hewitt asks that anyone who wishes to make donations to her family contact her through Facebook.

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. His story about his grandfather’s softball career is in The Best American Sports Writing of 2009.