Firefighters, Witnesses Describe Fatal Bronx Blaze

Updated: 03-09-2007 12:00:20 PM


First there was screaming - the desperate pleas of a mother and the crying of children. The wailing of fire engines came next, then the shattering of glass and the hoarse commands of police officers.

These sounds awakened sleeping Bronx residents with a jolt just after 11 p.m. Wednesday, and they looked out their windows to find a nightmare - the grisly scene of one of the deadliest New York City fires in recent memory.

During the next hour, firefighters pulled more than a dozen people from the Woodycrest Avenue house in Highbridge. One woman jumped from an upper floor after dropping her children to Good Samaritans waiting below. Neighbors cried as they watched infants being placed in body bags.

"It was horrible," said Luz Casiano, 57, who watched from her balcony across the street. "Horrible."

Coming to the rescue

Less than four minutes after 911 was called, police, firefighters and paramedics barreled into the burning house. Flames were shooting out of the first- and second-floor windows, forcing firefighters to scale a 6-foot fence behind the house to gain entry, said fire Lt. Larry Lanza.

Once inside, Lanza got on his hands and knees and searched for survivors. "We couldn't see a thing when we went in there," Lanza said.

Witnesses said firefighters seemed to swarm the building like ants, climbing ladders to higher stories and walking on the roof, their silhouettes flitting between the flames.

"They really did their job today," said witness Charles O'Neal, 21.

One firefighter inside began handing children out a first-floor window to other firefighters. The survivors' clothing smoked from the heat as the firefighters cradled them and ran toward the ambulances lining the block.

David Todd was there to assist two young children who had been dropped from the building by their mother.

"It's a hard thing to deal with, but I don't consider myself as being a hero," Todd said. "I just think it's something I had to do as far as being a man."

For other children, there was no hope. The tiny bodies were placed in black bags and laid side by side on the street.

A helpless feeling

Residents watched in awe as the fire lit the neighborhood.

Eddie Rodriguez, 50, meandered down to Woodycrest to see the commotion. He didn't expect to see children in body bags or watch a woman leap from the burning building.

He stayed and watched, though, wanting to pitch in but feeling helpless.

"We couldn't do nothing. I wish we could have done something," he said.

Meanwhile, Albertina Muniz, 48, awoke to the sounds of children screaming. She ran to her window and watched firefighters lay a little boy in blue pajamas on the street.

"This is the first time I've seen someone die," Muniz said.

The aftermath

All that's left at 1022 Woodycrest Ave. is a gutted house.

The furniture, toys and electronics that filled the house are charred beyond recognition in the front yard.

Firefighters walked through the house yesterday, clearing debris and looking for clues to the fire. About 2:30 p.m., one walked out carrying a space heater in a clear plastic bag.

Across the street, the extended families of the Magassas and Soumares, who lost eight children in the fire, gathered at another home. And at the corner of 165th Street and Woodycrest, mourners set up a makeshift memorial for the children on a table with a white tablecloth.

Nearby, a blue cardboard sign read: "RIP children of Highbridge."