911 Tapes: The Bronx Fire that Killed 10

An Eyewitness News Exclusive
February 4, 2009 6:13:44 PM PST
It's an Eyewitness News exclusive: You're about to hear the frantic 911 tapes from a fire last year in the Bronx that killed ten people, including nine children. The fire was a perfect storm of so many mistakes made by the people inside the building. They're mistakes that turned into catastrophe.

The Investigators Jim Hoffer discovered the tapes.

A series of mis-steps combined to turn a small bedroom fire into the worst residential blaze since 1968.

It has taken us nearly a year to get the recordings, but tonight for the first time, we hear the call for help from the only family member to dial 911.

By the time the first 911 call came in, the fire at the four-story home in the Bronx had been burning for several minutes as smoke and flames getting a head-start in a deadly race against time. It's a crucial delay as the call for help comes not from the inside, but from a husband at work.

Dispatcher: Fire Dept 167
Caller: Fire, fire in my house. All my family inside my house.

Mamadou Soumare, who at the time is at work driving a cab, is one of the first to call 911 after getting a panicked call from his wife who's trapped inside the burning home with their children.

Dispatcher: Do you see smoke or fire?
Caller: Fire, fire, fire.
Dispatcher: What floor, what apartment?

As fire trucks race to the scene and as the fire doubles every 30 seconds, a distraught Soumare calls 911 back.

Dispatcher: What's on fire there?
Caller: The building, the whole entire building is under fire.
Dispatcher: What is the fire, what floor?
Caller: "I don't know. I just went there everybody screaming. I have my family live there please."

At this point, a bedroom door left open on the ground floor allows the fire to spread up the stair-case which acts as a chimney. The blaze sparked by a faulty space heater turns into a killer inferno now visible to neighbors.

Caller: There's a lot of kids right now inside the building.
Dispatcher: what's going on there?
Caller: There's a lot of kids upstairs, there's a fire upstairs, they cannot open the door, they cannot get out.

FDNY records indicate their engine trucks arrived just three minutes and 23 seconds after the first call. Shortly after, mothers start tossing their children out windows for strangers to catch.

"She started tossing babies out the window," said one witness. "I just took a guess and they fell right in my arms."

In the end more died than could be saved. A blaze that should have been nothing more than a small basement fire had a door been closed, had a call been made more quickly to 911, instead became one of the city's worst. Nine children and a mother gone, but not hopefully the lesson of their loss.

"Nothing I can say can bring back the children," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the time. "In their memory let's resolve that no one else dies."

The building had two smoke alarms, however, they did not have batteries. In response to last year's Bronx fire, the FDNY received a Homeland Security grant to fund its largest fire safety campaign ever.

This week, the FDNY started handing out 50,000 nine-volt batteries at train stations around the city. The "sound the alarm campaign" is reminding everyone to put new batteries in their smoke alarms when they change their clocks this Sunday for daylight saving time. The same goes for the carbon monoxide detectors.