An extended family of Malian immigrants, trapped in their burning New York City home, screamed for help in the night, and one woman tossed children from a second-floor window to try to save them before jumping out herself, witnesses said. Nine people, including eight children, died in the city's deadliest fire in 17 years.
The extended family was well-known in the local immigrant community, and all victims either came from or traced their roots to the impoverished West African nation, whose government on expressed its condolences.
The children tossed from the three-story building survived, as did the woman who threw them, authorities said on Thursday.
The fire was sparked by an overheated space heater near a mattress in a basement bedroom, then raced up a stairway pushed by air from broken back windows, said Fire Chief Salvatore Cassano. Most of the 22 residents -- 17 of them children -- were stranded on the upper floors as the blaze raged for two hours.
The dead were found mostly on the upper floors, with babies still in their cribs, said one fire official. Twenty-two members of the extended family, including 17 children, lived in the three-story house.
Neighbors watched in disbelief as a woman tossed children from the windows amid the blaze.
"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 moments later as screams of "help me, help me" came from the house.
Mamadou Soumare, who lost his wife Fatroumata and three of their children, was driving his cab in Manhattan when he received a frantic phone call from his wife.
"She said, `We have a fire!' She screamed," Soumare recalled. "... I don't know what I'm going to do. I love her. I love my wife."
Soumare arrived to see his children trapped inside, but he was unable to help them.
Moussa Magassa, an official of the New York-based High Council for Malians Living Abroad, was headed back to New York from Mali after receiving the grim news that nearly half of his 11 children were dead, said council representative Bourema Niambele. One neighbor said Magassa and Mamadou Soumare were brothers.
"He's the best in our community," Imam Mahamadou Soukouna, a Muslim cleric and family friend, said of Magassa. "It's very, very, very sad what has happened to us today."
Magassa arrived in New York about 15 years ago, friends said. One neighbor said Magassa and Mamadou Soumare were brothers. Fatoumata Soumare was from the village of Tasauirga and left Mali for the Bronx about six years ago, friend said.
The Malian government said Thursday it would send a group to present its condolences in person to the victims' families.
"We have heard this sad news concerning the fire and the drama in which these Malians died in New York ... We are saddened and dismayed by the news," said Mohamed Sacko, spokesman for the Ministry of Malians Living Abroad and African Integration.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said as many as 19 people were injured, including four firefighters and an emergency medical worker. A seven-year-old girl remained in critical condition, while a pair of six-year-olds and a 24-year-old woman were in stable condition.
"It's obviously terrible for anyone to perish like this," Bloomberg 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."