NEW YORK – Eight children and one adult were killed in a three-story brick home in the Bronx during New York City's deadliest blaze in 17 years, authorities said.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said there were as many as 19 injuries, including four firefighters and an emergency medical worker, but that the death toll could increase. The mayor said other residents of the house were seriously injured.
Bloomberg said the "heartbreaking" fire may have resulted from a space heater or an overloaded power strip. It was the worst blaze since the 1990 Happy Land social club fire that killed 87 people.
"It's obviously terrible for anyone to perish like this," the mayor said. "It just seems more painful and more unfair when children die. When children die, everyone around them seems to die a little as well."
One firefighter told The New York Post that "there were kids laying in the street when we came up," adding, "this is a bad one."
Witnesses described a ghastly sight of seeing a woman hurl children through broken windows in hopes of saving the kids from the raging inferno.
"All I see is just a big cloud of white dust and out of nowhere comes the first baby," said Edward Soto, who caught the child. He said he caught a second child thrown from the window moments later.
• Photo Essay: 3-Alarm Blaze Kills 9 in New York City
All the while, screams of "help me, help me" spread through the home, said Soto, who helped rescue the children along with fellow neighbor David Todd, 40.
King Heath, 48, said he came on the scene with another neighbor and helped rescue people from the building.
"When I came around the corner, smoke was coming out the window," he told The New York Post. "The lady held one kid out the window. I caught one and the other guy caught the other one. She tossed him from the second floor. She jumped afterwards."
Among the dead, according to family members, were Fatoumata Soumare and her three children: a son, Dgibril, and 7-month-old twins, Sisi and Harouma. Their father, Mamadou Soumara, was driving his cab in Manhattan when he received a frantic phone call from his wife.
"She said, 'We have a fire!' She screamed," Soumara recalled. "... I don't know what I'm going to do. I love her. I love my wife."
Soumara rushed to the building in his livery cab, arriving to see his children trapped inside but unable to help them. Five children from another family perished in the blaze while their father was visiting their homeland of Mali in western Africa.
Mousa Majassa, an official of the New York-based High Council for Malians Living Abroad, was headed back to New York after receiving the grim news that nearly half of his 11 children were dead, said council representative Bourema Niambele.
Bloomberg, speaking at a news conference Thursday, provided these details on the fire: The dead children ranged in age from an infant to 10 years old, and said the female victim was in her 40s. Twenty-two people, all related and all immigrants from the west African nation of Mali, lived in the house. The home had two smoke alarms, but neither had batteries.
The fire started around 11 p.m. in the basement of the single-family residence, which was split into two apartments, and quickly spread up the stairs. Residents on the top three floors were trapped by the fast-moving flames, and they apparently tried to extinguish the fire themselves, Bloomberg said.
"Once they were notified, the Fire Department was on the scene in a little more than three minutes," the mayor said. "Sadly, that was not enough time."
The home was not equipped with a fire escape, and was not required to have one under city building codes, according to the Building Department. There were no complaints or violations on record against the building, constructed in 1901, said department spokesman Kate Lindquist.
It took two hours to extinguish the blaze, which spread to the first floor. The smell of smoke lingered hours afterward at the house just a few blocks from Yankee Stadium. Windows of the home were broken out, parts of the building were scorched and charred rubble was piled on the front porch.
Emergency workers wrapped children in blankets and rushed them away from the fire. Adding to the misery, the victims were displaced on one of the coldest nights of the year.
Neighbor Elaine Martin was one of the first to discover the fire. A shoeless woman in a nightgown was on the street, shivering in the blistering cold and frantically worrying about her children.
"My kids is in there, my kids is in there," Martin quoted the woman as saying.
The injured were taken to hospitals including Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center, Jacobi Medical Center and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center.
Michael Heller, spokesman at Jacobi Medical Center, said five children ranging in age from 2 to 7 were taken to the Bronx hospital with smoke inhalation and burns. Heller said one of the victims — an infant less than a year old — died at Jacobi.
The dead woman and two children, aged 4 and 9, were dead on arrival at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center.
Neighbors said at least one of the families ran an import-export business, and a public records search lists African American Import Export at the address.
The block where the fire happened is largely residential, including small apartment buildings, townhouses, and a couple of businesses and freestanding homes.
Mali, one of the world's poorest countries, has a quarter of its nationals abroad and thousands have risked a sea journey to smuggle themselves into Europe.
David Robinson, who lives in the neighborhood, said the victims seemed to be a close-knit group. "The kids were always playing, either in the yard of their home or on the block with water guns and scooters."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.