Three days after an epic fire in Midwood Brooklyn, the worst of its kind in eight years, engulfed a home of an Orthodox-Jewish family of ten, claiming the lives of seven of its eight children and in it’s horrible wake, leaving the mother and 15-year-old surviving daughter hospitalized and in critical condition, neighbors, extended family and community members are still shocked and reeling from the emotional destruction caused by this catastrophe. The fire was allegedly caused by an electrical malfunction of a heating plate, an appliance normally found in Orthodox-Jewish homes for the purpose of keeping food warm over the Sabbath. Since Jewish law forbids adherents from manually turning on and off electrical appliances, including lights and TV sets from Friday shortly before sunset until dusk the following night, these modern conveniences are either left running or connected to a timer, which automatically turns them on and off at designated times.
As a result of the malfunction of an otherwise mundane device so frequently used, an entire family after enjoying a peaceful night at the Shabbat table with food, song, love and laughter, only hours later and due to the deadly fire that ensued, was completely torn apart. Because the house was a structure of almost a century old on a Midwood block boasting beautiful structures of the same time period, and because the home was made primarily of wood, as soon as the flames burst from the appliance and leaped up the staircase, chances of escape were close to nil. While the mother and one of the daughters barely made it out, fire fighters who rushed to the scene were unable to save the lives of the others in time.
Mayor Bill DiBlasio arrived at the the scene in Midwood Saturday morning and walked through the remains of the home calling this a painful tragedy. So many others shared the pain as neighbors remembered always seeing the cheerful children play in the yard and volunteer to help others. Because Orthodox Jews do not use the phone on Shabbat, several community members outside of word of mouth did not hear about the catastrophe until after sundown. Thousands attended the funeral held in Borough Park, the father, who had been on a retreat during this disaster delivered the eulogy. Overcome tears he mentioned each of his children by name and the wonderful memories he had of each of them while declaring his unwavering faith in God and his surrender.
Several other events in the wake and aftermath of the tragic Midwood were held, including a vigil at the burnt home of the family Sunday. The following day, seminars throughout Midwood were held educating parents how to teach their children and others to cope with one of the worst tragedies in recent Brooklyn history. Although the people directly affected were immediate and extended family members, the pain has extended to not only the surrounding Midwood Orthodox community but the entire New York City and beyond, as they pondered the angelic faces of the children who were building snowmen just a few days prior. People of all walks of life are trying to find meaning and solace. While for some this can never be found, what is happening around is a call to action in order to prevent a tragedy of this magnitude from ever happening again.
Tonight, the Fire Department held an event in the Midwood neighborhood in the aftermath of the fire to go over safety precautions. It was hosted by Boro President Eric Adams, and other Brooklyn elected officials as well as Jewish community organizations like Hatzolah of Flatbush. Local fire fighters were there as well to hand out smoke alarms. While this is an important start in addressing this event, more must be done to prevent disasters like this one.
First, it must be understood that the fire happened as a result of an appliance malfunctioning due to being left on overnight, cynics do little when they assign blame on the fact that the family practiced Orthodox observance. Heaters, TV sets and other modern appliances are often left on for days posing an equal amount of risk. In all cases, precautions must be made. While there is a need to have appliances like heaters to keep the home warm on colder days, more effort must be made in ensuring that they are not left on unattended for extended periods of time. Several Orthodox-Jewish homes are already ahead of the curve in this, not only in Midwood, but worldwide. This ranges from a simple timer into which the appliance is plugged to a computerized home system that manages the electricity throughout the home. It should be common sense to all that open flames including candles should not be left burning unattended. Still this is only one step in prevention.
In the aftermath of the Midwood Fire, investigators reported that there was no smoke detector or fire alarm installed in any of the floors other than the basement, and because of the structure of the home, the risk of it burning down was exacerbated. The city needs to make it a priority to ensure that each home is certified for safety whether it is a functioning smoke alarm or fire detector that sends a signal to the police department so the issue can be properly addressed. Homeowners need to be made aware of the possibility of not only putting themselves and their families at risk, but to their neighbors as well. Landlords of buildings must be held even more accountable in installing an alarm system on each floor of the building no matter the size. Second, homeowners should be required to keep fire extinguishers in an easily accessible part of their homes and taught how to use it properly. They need to be educated as well in simple steps like changing the batteries of the smoke detectors and test to make sure they are always working. Reminders can be sent to families via email or postal service.
Many neighbors, community members and even people outside of the Midwood Orthodox community are still in bewilderment in the aftermath of the tragedy, and in the eyes of the family itself and those close to it, it is like watching a holocaust. But as some people struggle to find meaning in the Holocaust itself, they will struggle to find meaning in this catastrophe. However, just as the 1946 cry in its aftermath was “Never again,” with taking the necessary steps to protect their children and loved ones, people can help ensure that a tragedy like the one that happened to this beautiful Midwood family happens, never again.
By Bill Ades