A tragedy both avoidable and predictable


Seven children who died in a house fire in Brooklyn very early yesterday morning are being buried* today, and there obviously are no words to describe the grief of their mother and sister, who got out alive, and their father, who wasn’t home at the time.

But the rest of us should be feeling something way beyond horror, and we should be expressing something much more powerful than sorrow.

We should be angry. Furious. Mad as hell. Because this tragedy was both avoidable and predictable.

The lede (and an excellent one) in the New York Times tells the story:

A hot plate warmed food in the darkened kitchen in Brooklyn, allowing an Orthodox Jewish mother to feed her family while observing the Sabbath prohibition on lighting a flame. Upstairs, she and eight children slept.

And the hot plate started a fire and the house burned down.

The story goes on:

On Saturday, investigators found a smoke detector in the basement of the home at 3371 Bedford Avenue, near Avenue L, but had not found any on the first floor, where the fire started, or the second, where the family slept. They were still searching the debris.

“We believe there were none,” Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro said. “That’s always a tragedy in itself.”

Let’s digress for a minute to talk about the Sabbath prohibition on lighting a flame. I’m familiar with this. I was my grandmother’s shabbos goy. (Go ahead, Google it.)

I remember a Saturday morning more than 50 years ago when my dad drove me to his mother’s apartment on Ocean Avenue in the same neighborhood where I grew up and where the children died yesterday. My dad took me to Bubbe’s apartment that day to perform a specific task: Turn on a couple of lights and turn off the stove. Bubbe, an Orthodox Jew, couldn’t do these things because it was shabbos. And my dad couldn’t do them because his mom got upset when he violated the Sabbath traditions that she observed and he didn’t.

But I was a kid — his kid, and his responsibility. So Bubbe was OK with me turning on the lights and turning off the stove. If God got pissed off, it would be on my dad, not her.

It all seemed so silly to me. But it also struck me as I turned off the stove that my Bubbe was living dangerously, leaving an open flame in the kitchen all night while she slept in her bedroom.

And I’m remembering all of that today, because seven children are being put in the ground because of that same Sabbath tradition.

And this is where I have to ask: If mom and dad were a couple of drug addicts living in a small home with their eight kids in a different neighborhood of New York, would this story be getting the same press treatment?

Or would mom and dad be facing charges that might include reckless endangerment, manslaughter and maybe a few others I could think of if I were a district attorney.

And that’s why I think we should be angry. Mad as hell. Because if you have eight kids living upstairs in a small house and you have no smoke detectors except for one in the basement (because we all know that smoke travels down) and you’re turning on an electric hot plate in the kitchen and leaving it unattended overnight … then you are endangering the lives of your family. You are parenting irresponsibly.

And they have laws against that.

This is the fire commissioner on the morning after:


And this is the mayor:


And tomorrow there will be pictures of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews at today’s funeral* for the seven children who died in that fire early yesterday morning.

And next Friday night they will switch on the hot plates in their kitchens and go to bed.

Can we at least pray that between now and then, they’ll install some smoke detectors?

— 30 —

* I learned after this was published that a memorial service was being held today and that the bodies of the seven children would then be flown to Israel, where they will be buried.

4 thoughts on “A tragedy both avoidable and predictable

  1. SO horrible. Has no one ever told them about Crock-Pot cooking? And yes, smoke detectors. I agree that if those parents were not white there would be a different response from DFS. Ugh. So horrible.


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