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Fire in New York’s Bronx kills woman, 8 children from extended family, injures many

NEW YORK — Screams poured from the burning building along with smoke and flames: ‘‘Help me! Help me! Please! Please!’’ Bystanders looked up to see a woman toss her children out the window one at a time to those below.
    The scene unfolded early Thursday during New York’s deadliest fire in nearly two decades — a blaze that killed eight children and one adult, part of an extended family led by African immigrants who shared a row house near Yankee Stadium.
    The woman who tossed her children jumped from the building. Her fate and that of her children were not immediately known.
    Investigators believe the fire started overnight with a faulty space heater or overloaded power strip, ignited a mattress in the basement and quickly raced up the stairs of the four-story structure. Most of the 22 residents — 17 of them children — were stranded on the upper floors as the blaze raged out of control.
    Neighbor Edward Soto ran toward the fire, then stared in disbelief as an infant was tossed from the building.
    ‘‘All I see is just a big cloud of white dust, and out of nowhere comes the first baby,’’ said Soto, who caught the child while with another neighbor. Moments later, he caught a second child. At least one of the children was not breathing.
    Firefighters worked for two hours in freezing predawn temperatures to bring the flames under control. The home had two smoke alarms, but neither had batteries. Police said there was no evidence of a crime.
    The dead were found throughout the house, mostly on the upper floors, with babies still in their cribs. The victims included five children from one family, along with a wife and three other children from a second family.
    Word of the fire spread grief across two continents, from the Bronx to villages in Mali, a West African country about twice the size of Texas and one of the poorest nations in the world.
    ‘‘I don’t know what I’m going to do,’’ said a devastated Mamadou Soumare, a livery cabdriver whose wife, son and 7-month-old twins died in the blaze. ‘‘I love her. I love my wife.’’
    Soumare was driving through Harlem when he received a frantic cell phone call from his wife, Fatoumata, who relatives said died in the fire. ‘‘She said, ‘We have a fire,’’’ Soumare recalled. ‘‘She was screaming.’’
    Soumare rushed home in his cab, only to stand on the street and watch helplessly as their home turned into a fiery tomb.
    Moussa Magassa, an official of the New York chapter of the High Council for Malians Living Abroad, was headed back to the city from a business trip to Mali after receiving the grim news that nearly half of his 11 children were dead, said council representative Bourema Niambele.
    ‘‘He’s the best in our community,’’ said Imam Mahamadou Soukouna, a Muslim cleric and family friend. ‘‘It’s very, very, very sad what has happened to us today.’’
    Magassa was flying home from Bamako, the capital of Mali; he arrived in New York about 15 years ago, friends said. One neighbor said Magassa and Mamadou Soumare were brothers.
    Fatoumata Soumare was from the village of Tasauirga and left Mali for the Bronx about six years ago, friends said.
    Neighbors described a close-knit family, with the children often seen playing in the yard or in the street with water guns and scooters.
    The death toll might have been higher if not for the efforts of Soto and another neighbor, David Todd.
    Todd, 40, who lived in an adjoining apartment building, said one child was already on the ground in the yard when he arrived with Soto outside the burning home. ‘‘Please God, help my children!’’ the woman inside screamed while tossing her children out — and then jumping from the window.
    Another neighbor, Elaine Martin, said flames were shooting from the building when she arrived, and a shoeless woman in a nightgown stood crying in the street.
    ‘‘My kids is in there, my kids is in there,’’ the woman wailed to Martin.
    Neighbor Charles O’Neal, 21, watched as firefighters passed along babies still clad in their pajamas. Later, O’Neal saw two of the children dead, splayed across white plastic on the ground near their home.
    There were reports of 19 injuries, including four firefighters and an emergency medical worker. A 7-year-old girl remained in critical condition, while a pair of 6-year-olds were upgraded from critical to good condition.
    Part of the problem, according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was that residents apparently tried to extinguish the fire themselves.
    ‘‘Once they were notified, the Fire Department was on the scene in a little more than three minutes,’’ the mayor said. ‘‘Sadly, that was not enough time.’’
    The home was not equipped with a fire escape, and was not required to have one under city building codes. There were no complaints or violations on record against the building, constructed in 1901.
    Neighbors said at least one of the families ran an import-export business, and a public records search lists African American Import Export at the address.
    The dead, according to family members, included Fatoumata Soumare, 42, and three children: a son, Dgibril, and 7-month-old twins, Sisi and Harouma. A fourth child, 7-year-old Hasimy, escaped the carnage, her father said. The family members provided different name spellings than the authorities did.
    Authorities identified the members of the Magassa family as four brothers: Bandiougou, 11, Mahamadou, 8, Abudubucary, 5, and Bilaly, 1; and their sister, 3-year-old Diaba.
    Multiple spellings of the family’s surname were provided after the fire, but property records and phone listings have it as Magassa.

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