NEW YORK – Two fathers who lost nine of their relatives to the city's deadliest fire in years grieved together Friday at an Islamic Cultural Center and planned the final arrangements for the victims, eight of them children.
Neither man had been at the two-family home near Yankee Stadium when the fire broke out on a lower floor late Wednesday night.
Moussa Magassa was on a business trip in his native Mali in West Africa and flew home to New York on Friday. Mamadou Soumare had been at work driving a cab when his wife called, screaming that the house was on fire. Soumare's wife, Fatoumata, died in the blaze, along with three of the couple's children and five of Magassa's.
• Photo Essay: 3-Alarm Blaze Kills 9 in New York City
"Parents should never have to bury their children," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Friday after meeting with the men. "It's not the logical order of things."
Two Mali ambassadors joined Bloomberg and attended a prayer service for the victims. Twenty-two relatives, including 17 children, lived in the home.
The families are "getting a lot of comfort from the community," said Sidi Darrah, Mali ambassador to the United Nations. Donations for the surviving family members had already topped $21,000, he said. Several mosques were leading the effort, Imam Konate Souleimane said.
The tentative plan was to fly Fatoumata Soumare and her three children to Mali for burial, while Magassa's children would be buried in the New York area, Souleimane said.
"These people are good Muslims," said Dukary Camara, a spokesman for Islamic Cultural Center. "They understand that what is destiny for them, there's nothing that can prevent that from happening."
The fire started with a space heater and quickly climbed through the three-story house, authorities said. Inside, the adults apparently tried to extinguish the flames themselves, but those on the upper floors were trapped.
Mamadou Soumare was driving his livery cab through Harlem when he got a frantic call from his wife.
"She said, `We have a fire,"' he recalled. "She was screaming."
"I might die with my kids," she told him.
He called 911, 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 the 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. The couple's fourth child, 7-year-old Hasimy, escaped, her father said. Family members provided different name spellings than the authorities did.
Magassa lost four sons — Bandiougou, 11, Mahamadou, 8, Abudubucary, 5, and Bilaly, 1, and his 3-year-old daughter 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.
"It's very, very, very sad what has happened," said Imam Mahamadou Soukouna, a Muslim cleric and family friend. He described Magassa, an official of the New York chapter of the international High Council for Malians Living Abroad, as "the best in our community."
At least three children were among the injured. A 7-year-old girl was in critical condition at Jacobi Medical Center, and a pair of 6-year-olds were upgraded from critical to good condition and transferred to Lincoln Hospital.
The home had two smoke alarms, but the batteries were missing, authorities said.
The family that owned the building had planned renovations, including sprinklers that would have drenched the hallways and the home's central stairwell in the event of a fire, city records show. A change to multi-family status would have also required the at least one additional fire-resistant stairwell, city buildings officials said, but the project was suspended by the city for further evaluation.
The fire was the city's deadliest since the 1990 Happy Land social club blaze in the Bronx that killed 87 people, with the exception of the World Trade Center attacks.
"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. All the parents had immigrated from Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world.
Near the home Friday, neighbors added to a memorial of flowers, notes and stuffed animals. The family van was still parked in the driveway, its roof strewn with debris.
"We are standing with them and supporting them, and we are thanking God," said Camara, of the Islamic Cultural Center. "God is the one who gives us the children and the family, and he is the one who takes them."