NEW YORK (AFP) - Seven children from the same family died on Saturday when their New York home was engulfed in flames after a portable cooker malfunctioned, authorities said.
The so-called hot plate, which is a small electrical heating element, may have been left on to keep food warm because of Orthodox Jewish customs that bar cooking on the Sabbath, New York fire commissioner Daniel Nigro told a news conference.
“This is the largest tragedy by fire that this city has had in seven years,” Nigro said in comments reported by The New York Times.
“It’s a tragedy for this family, it’s a tragedy for this community, it’s a tragedy for the city.”
Firefighters were called to the blaze in the home in the borough of Brooklyn shortly after midnight. The victims were aged between 5 and 15.
A 45-year-old woman thought to be their mother and another girl, 14, escaped by jumping out of windows and were being treated in area hospitals in critical condition.
“I heard a woman yelling, ‘My kids are in there. Get them out, get them out!’” a neighbour, Nate Weber, told the New York Post.
Weber saw children being taken from the home on stretchers and “I knew it was bad news... I just turned away. I didn’t even want to look,” he said.
The mother and the eight children were in at least five upstairs bedrooms when the fire broke out in the kitchen downstairs.
“To find a house full of children that can’t be revived, I’m sure this will take its toll on our members for quite some time,” Nigro said, according to CNN.
The victims were three girls aged eight, 12 and 15; and four boys aged five, six, seven and 11.
Authorities were having difficulties reaching the father, who was away at a conference.
The victims’ names were not immediately released.
A man who lives next door to the burned home told the Times the family was large and loving and that some of the kids had helped neighbours shovel snow on Friday.
“They’re very good people, the kids were always helping people,” he told the newspaper.
Nigro said there was no sign of working smoke detectors on the first or second floors.
Because Orthodox Jewish customs proscribe the lighting of flames on the Sabbath, many families leave electrical burners running to keep food warm over the day of rest instead of using stoves.
The New York Fire Department responded to some 2,504 “serious incidents” in 2014, according to its annual report.