The New York Fire Department was stepping up safety education efforts in Orthodox areas this week after a fire in Williamsburg on the second day of Passover left three chasidic boys dead.
“We passed out over 5,000 fliers [before the holiday] to explain hazards and precautions that should be taken, and we’ll be back out there again and do it this week,” said the FDNY’s chief of operations, Salvatore Cassano. “The holiday isn’t over yet.”
Officials said Monday’s early morning blaze at the Bedford Gardens apartment complex on Ross Street was caused by a stove left burning all weekend. The flame apparently ignited wooden paneling.
Because Orthodox custom forbids lighting flames during the Sabbath or holidays, many observant families leave a stove burning to warm or cook food, which fire officials consider a risky practice.
“We don’t advise people to leave their burners on,” said Cassano. “But if they have to, they should make sure there is nothing combustible around or behind it.”
Ironically, the tragedy came despite a new fire safety campaign launched for the first time in the weeks before this Passover. The New York Board of Rabbis worked together with the fire department to distribute, via fliers and e-mail, safety tips specifically regarding Passover. They include advice not to leave ovens unattended while in use or on cleaning cycles; to place candles out of reach of pets or small children and at least four feet away from curtains, decorations, blinds or bedding; to avoid wearing loose sleeves while cooking; and general tips about the importance of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and a fire escape plan.
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis as well as the FDNY’s Jewish chaplain, said he was working with chasidic leaders to have the fliers translated into Yiddish and was hoping to screen a video at yeshivas.
“Whatever we have to do to get the message out there, we will do,” said Rabbi Potasnik.
The fast-moving fire claimed the lives of Shia Matyas, 16, his 13-year-old brother,Yidel, and their 7-year-old nephew, Israel Falkowitz. Ten others were injured, including two sisters who jumped from a second floor window to escape the flames, and their father, Sinai Matyas, a cook at the Rose Castle catering hall. One of the girls, Suri, 21, is engaged to be married in a few weeks, neighbors said. Two firefighters were lightly injured.
The three boys were buried on the same day as the fire, because Orthodox practice allows funerals and burials to take place on the second day of a holiday, and requires a body to be interred as soon as possible.
Although the fire was not specifically related to Passover, this is a season of heightened alert for the fire department because in recent years serious injuries have resulted from rituals related to the holiday.
Several years ago a major fire erupted in a Flatbush, Brooklyn, home during the pre-Passover search for chametz, traditionally performed in darkened rooms using a candle. And last year some 125 fires deemed dangerous by firefighters were doused in Borough Park, and five people were burned there when a can of paint thinner beside one chametz fire ignited.
This year there were no such incidents reported, said Chief Cassano.The Fire Department’s list of tips did not mention the traditional burning of chametz, apparently to avoid appearing to sanction the process.
“Open fires are illegal,” said Cassano. “We work with the community, knowing it’s a religious holiday, and we have extra units on the scene [in Orthodox areas] and we respond quickly.”
Brooklyn City Councilman Simcha Felder, who last year had called for supervised chametz burning sites in Borough Park, said that although such a plan could not be implemented in time this year, he sensed a greater attention to fire safety in the community, and was pleased that there was no repeat of last year’s incident.
On Tuesday afternoon, a crowd of chasidic men gathered beneath the blackened and boarded windows of the Bedford Gardens apartment affected by the fire. The windows face a fenced courtyard impassable to vehicles, and residents said firefighters put down the blaze by carrying a hose up into the second floor apartment.
Many of the men expressed their concern about the safety of the 30-year-old complex, noting that the apartment windows each have bars on one side, a fixed glass panel on the other and no fire escape. The burned apartment’s kitchen, where the fire started, is beside the only exit door.
“You can’t get out if the kitchen is right next to the door,” said Joe Green, president of the Bedford Gardens tenant association. “How can it be safe?”
The building manager, Stephen Kraus, could not be reached for comment but told The New York Post that the window guards adhered to New York City regulations.
Cassano said no summonses had been issued in relation to the fire, but said experts were investigating whether conditions at the complex are safe. The New York Times, citing an unnamed fire official, said there had been 35 fires at the eight-building Bedford Gardens complex in the last several months tied to flames left burning during the Sabbath or holidays. But the tenant association’s Green, clutching a copy of that article, insisted he did not believe it, and suggested the statement had been intended to depict Orthodox practice as at fault for the fire, while the true cause remained unknown. “I can’t remember 35 fires,” he said.
The Times quoted Kraus, the building manager, as saying not all the fires required the presence of firefighters.
Many in the crowd of men, most of whom would not give their names, said they believed an electrical fire or some other mishap was to blame, citing reports that the family complained of a rubbery odor the night before the fire.
“I’m not a fireman or an engineer, but what they are saying can’t be true,” said Green.Isaac Abraham, a spokesman for the building tenants, said he had sent a letter to Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta urging him to fully investigate the fire and whether firefighters arrived as quickly as possible on the scene.
Officials have said the response time was under the department’s average response of 4 minutes and 18 seconds. The Fire Department and the New York Board of Rabbis have each compiled lists of safety tips for Passover, which can be obtained by calling the Board at (212) 983-3521. For general fire safety questions call the city’s information hotline, 311, or go to www.nyc.gov/fdny and select “safety and health.”