A Malian man who lost five children and four relatives in New York City's deadliest fire in 17 years was enroute back to the United States on Friday after learning of the their deaths while on a business trip to his native country.
Moussa Magassa was scheduled to arrive in New York sometime Friday, more than a day after a fire ripped through his home in the borough of the Bronx, killing eight children and one adult and wounding about 14 other residents. Family members are still making funeral plans for the two Muslim families, and the leader of their mosque said some bodies would be flown back to Mali for burial, while others would be buried in the New York area.
Magassa is an official of the New York chapter of the international High Council for Malians Living Abroad, and is "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."
The fire the worst in the city since a 1990 nightclub fire claimed 87 lives started late Wednesday night and climbed quickly through the house, sparked by an overloaded space heater. Authorities said batteries were also missing from the two smoke alarms, and residents apparently tried to extinguish the fire themselves rather than call the fire department first.
The scene described by witnesses was one of terror, with a woman hurling children from the window in a desperate bid to save as many as she could in a home in which authorities said 22 people lived, including 17 children.
By the time Fatoumata Soumare the only adult to die in the blaze called her husband from the home, she seemed to know she was doomed.
"I might die with my kids," she told him.
Of the eight children who died, three were hers while the other five were relatives.
City records show that rennovations were planned for the building, including adding fire safety features. But the project had been suspended by the city for futher evaluation, and no such safety measures were present when flames tore through the house, trapping the victims.
The dead, including babies in their cribs, were found throughout the house, a fire official said.
"I can't recollect a fire where we lost eight children," said Chief of Department Salvatore Cassano, who has 37 years in the department.
The blaze broke hearts from the South Bronx to West Africa, as all the parents had immigrated from Mali, one of the world's poorest nations.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," said Soumare's husband, Mamadou Soumare, casting tearful eyes at the burned-out building after his wife, son and twins died in the blaze. "I love her. I love my wife."
Soumare was driving his livery cab when he received the frantic phone call. "She said, `We have a fire,"' Soumare recalled. "She was screaming." A cousin, Bouna Fade, said the husband told him she said, "I might die with my kids."
Soumare could not prevent it. He made a call to emergency services, but by the time he got home, the house was a fiery tomb. Two neighbors, Edward Soto and David Todd, had rescued a couple of children tossed from a window.
But for others it was too late. Neighbor Charles O'Neal, 21, said he saw firefighters pass along babies still clad in their pajamas and lay two dead children on sheets of white plastic.
Family members identified the dead as Fatoumata Soumare, 42, her son Dgibril and 7-month-old twins Sisi and Harouma. A fourth child, 7-year-old Hasimy, escaped the carnage, her father said. Family members provided different name spellings than the authorities did.
The Magassa family dead included four brothers Bandiougou, 11, Mahamadou, 8, Abudubucary, 5, and Bilaly, 1, and their 3-year-old sister Diaba. Their mother and six siblings survived. City records and phone listings spell their surname as Magassa, although various other spellings were provided after the fire.
At least three more children were among the 19 people injured. A 7-year-old girl remained in critical condition, while a pair of 6-year-olds were upgraded from critical to good condition and transferred to another hospital. Included in the number injured were four firefighters and a paramedic.
Grieving relatives, including Mamdou Soumare, gathered Thursday afternoon for a meeting and prayer service at the Islamic Cultural Center. Offering support were fellow Muslims.
"We are standing with them and supporting them, and we are thanking God," said Dukary Camara, a spokesman for the center. "God is the one who gives us the children and the family, and he is the one who takes them."
"These people are good Muslims," he added, "and they understand that what is destiny for them, there's nothing that can prevent that from happening."
After the service, Imam Konate Souleimane said mosques throughout the New York area would accept donations for the grieving families during Friday services. He said tentative plans were for Fatoumata Soumare and her children to be flown back to Mali for burial, while the other children would be buried in the New York area, reports AP.
"God is great and he is merciful," the cleric said. "He does everything for a reason."