The Red Devil that people of all faiths should fear at all times is believed to have risen into the Sabbath darkness from a malfunctioning hot plate in Brooklyn.
Orthodox Jewish families often use hot plates to keep food warm without breaking the religious prohibition against working an oven between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday.
Just after the midnight leading into this past Saturday, the Red Devil spread quickly from the hot plate in a Midwood kitchen into the living room and on toward the stairway. The heat and smoke and toxic gases rose into the second floor where 45-year-old Gayle Sassoon and her eight children slept.
The father was away with no reason to think that his family was in danger. He could not have imagined that one of his children would awake to find that their cozy home had been transformed into a devil’s hell.
“Mommy! Mommy! Help me!” a child screamed.
The mother was at the front of the second floor and the fire coming up the staircase kept her from getting to the children in the back. She made what FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro would term a valiant attempt to reach them before she was finally forced to leap out a window toward the front with her 14-year-old daughter, Tzipara.
Both mother and daughter were burned and suffering from smoke inhalation. The mother’s hands and feet were bleeding onto the fresh snow.
“My kids are in there! My kids are in there! Get them out! Get them out!” she was heard to scream.
The initial cry from the child had prompted neighbor Andrew Rosenblatt to dial 911. The first firefighters arrived while he was still on the line.
In an instant, an engine company stretched a line to the front door and began battling its way into the inferno. The water knocked the fire down enough for a ladder company to head up the stairs toward the trapped children.
“High heat and zero visibility,” says a firefighter who was at the scene.
The firefighters crawled into the blinding smoke and searing heat, proving anew that the bravest acts in the city are routinely performed on all fours.
“Stay low, keep your bearings,” the firefighter says. “You want to be able to find your way out.”
They reached out to find a wall and a baseboard, using it as a guide with one hand, searching around with the other.
“It’s by feel,” the firefighter says. “It’s not like Hollywood.”
The firefighters began to come upon the children, one after another. A radio code for a civilian casualty went out again and again and again.
Two of the children were placed in a bucket ladder that had been raised out front. The others were carried down the stairs, some cradled in a firefighters’ arms, others over a firefighter’s shoulder. There were seven in all, in addition to the 14-year-old who had leapt out with the mother.
“It was as bad as anything I’ve ever seen,” the firefighter says. “They’re so innocent. You never want anything bad to happen to them.”
The firefighters and paramedics fought desperately to revive the children. The first step of CPR is to clear the airway, but other fires had shown that breathing super-heated air such as had filled the second floor causes the esophagus to swell shut.
One child was pronounced dead at the scene. Six others were rushed to nearby hospitals. The firefighters hoped for miracles, but those children were also beyond saving. The police department released a list of the dead.
Eliane Sassoon, 16 year old female
Rivkah Sassoon, 11 year old female
David Sassoon, 12 year old male
Yeshua Sassoon, 10 year old male
Moshe Sassoon, 8 year old male
Sara Sassoon, 6 year old female
Yaakob Sassoon, 5 year old male
The 14-year-old survivor was listed in critical condition, as was the mother. The father was difficult to contact due to Sabbath prohibitions against using telephones, but authorities were finally able to notify him of the unthinkable. He is said to have been so distraught that he could not immediately remember his oldest child’s date of birth.
Dawn gave way to a bright morning. The melting snow of the previous day’s unseasonable storm began dripping from the tree branches like oversized tears to accompany those of the neighbors who had witnessed the horrific scene.
“All you can do is pray,” said Karen Greenblatt, whose husband made the 911 call. “What else can you do?”
She and her husband remained amazed by the bravery of the firefighters who had charged into direst danger when the smoke was so thick it made the house seem to disappear.
“They’re the bravest,” Karen Greenblatt said. “We kept saying that over and over and over.”
More praise for the firefighters came from comrades who had arrived just as they were going in.
“Above and beyond,” a fire officer said.
But the same selfless spirit that had propelled the firefighters also made it all the more unbearable for them not to have been able to save the children for want of just a few critical instants.
“Seconds to what could have been a possible save and you lost someone,” a firefighter said.
Fire investigators found a smoke detector in the basement, but as of the afternoon none had been recovered on the first and second floors.
At midday, a red FDNY van marked Fire Safety Education arrived on the scene. The folks of this unit are not lauded as heroes, but they are among the Red Devil’s foremost opponents.
They seek to keep the Devil from arising in the first place. And, as part of that effort, they distribute literature such as a fire safety coloring book that includes a checklist for kids.
“We have smoke detectors where we sleep,” reads one item toward the top.
The unit now set about distributing flyers headed Fire Safety for Jewish Observances. The flyer notes that a quarter of all fires in private houses start in the kitchen and that a third of those result from unattended cooking.
“Don’t leave cooking food unattended,” the flyer warns.
Many residents of the surrounding community are also Orthodox Jews who do not watch television or listen to radio or go online during the Sabbath. Many learned of the tragedy only as they emerged to walk to temple.
One man stood in the sparkling sunshine of the first full day of spring and gazed past the police barricades to the white stucco house with blackened windows where seven children had been killed by the Red Devil.
“It’s a beautiful Sabbath morning,” he said. “God knows.”
A woman recalled that at the approach of Passover the Sassoon kids would wash their neighbor’s cars.
Now, on this Sabbath, 13 days from the holiday, the father was planning for seven funerals and hoping there would not be two more.
“It’s a tragedy for this family, it’s a tragedy for this community, it’s a tragedy for our city,” a clearly heart-torn FDNY Commissioner Nigro said.
The firefighter who says it was as bad a thing as he ever saw then summed it up with two words.