Mourners throng funeral of 7 Jewish children killed in New York fire

2015-03-23 05:00
Mourners gather before the funeral service. (Julio Cortez, AP)

Mourners gather before the funeral service. (Julio Cortez, AP)

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New York - The funeral of seven Orthodox Jewish children who perished in one of New York's deadliest fires in years drew a sea of mourners on Sunday to a Brooklyn neighbourhood where the blaze has raised concerns about the safety of Sabbath cooking practices.

Around the corner from the home where only the mother and one of her eight children survived the early Saturday blaze, the fire department of New York handed out pamphlets titled Fire Safety for Jewish Observances as well as smoke alarms and batteries.

The fire department blamed a malfunctioning electric hotplate for the fire that raced through the home at around 12:30 (04:00 GMT) on Saturday, killing the children, ages 5 to 16. The blaze critically injured their 15-year-old sister, Siporah, and mother, Gayle Sassoon, 45. The father was at a religious conference when the fire broke out.

Crowd-control barricades were set up outside the Shomrei Hadas Chapels in Brooklyn, where a rabbi was to lead services for the children, laid out in seven coffins in front of men and women, sitting on separate sides of the room. After the service, the children's bodies were to be flown to Israel for burial, the funeral home said.

Jewish rules in observance of the Sabbath day of rest, which lasts from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, prohibit turning on and off electric appliances and prohibit all other forms of what is considered work, said State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents the heavily Jewish district.

"A lot of people use these hotplates to keep food warm for the next day," Hikind said. "They put them on on Friday and they are left on for the entire Sabbath, 25 hours."

An online version of the FDNY pamphlet about dangers during the Sabbath and Jewish holidays tops the list with the warning: "Stay in the kitchen - don't leave cooking food unattended."

Hikind said he uses a water-filled urn that he heats up before the Sabbath starts at sundown every Friday night.

"I called my own daughter, who has six kids, to tell her to stop using that hot plate," he said.

It was the city's fourth deadly fire in 15 years sparked by hotplates or use of ritual candles, according to the Jewish Forward newspaper, including a 2000 fire in Williamsburg that killed the granddaugther of the Satmar Grand Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum and her 5-month old baby.

Hikind said that scam artists immediately launched a phony fundraising scheme in the Sassoon family's name, and he warned followers on Twitter not to contribute.

"People's heart aches - Jew and non-Jew alike. They want to help. We don't want you to waste your money," he later told Reuters.

Although smoke alarms are required on every floor of a home, The New York Times reported the Sassoon home only had a smoke alarm in the basement.

The fire department did not immediately respond to questions about the home's smoke alarms or about previous deadly fires tied to religious observances.

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