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It Takes a Village: Helping Families of the Bronx Fire
By Nana Nkweti

Africans across the nation looked on in sympathy as the Malian community in New York mourned the deaths of nine members of the Magassa and Soumare families in a tragic house fire last Wednesday. Twenty-two extended family members lived in the four-storey building at 1022 Woodycrest Avenue in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, a home to many African immigrants.

One father, Moussa Magassa, was traveling in Africa on business and returned to New York on Friday to grieve for his daughter, Diaba Magassa, 3; and four sons, Bandiougou Magassa, 11; Mahamadou Magassa, 8; Bilaly Abudubucary, 5; and Magassa, 1.

Taxi driver Mamadou Soumare was working when his wife, Fatoumata Soumare (pictured), 45, called him from inside the burning structure. He rushed home, but it was too late for Fatoumata and three of his four children. Mrs. Soumare, 3- year old Djibril Soumare and 7-month-old twins, Sisi and Harouma (pictured), perished. Their 6-year-old daughter Hassing was initially hospitalized in stable condition but later succumbed to complications from smoke inhalation. She died on Saturday, bringing the death toll to ten.

The Soumare family from the Bronx to Bamako reeled under the latest blow. Villagers from Moussa Magassa's hometown of Gogui are also grieving. Like many Africans living abroad, Moussa Magassa was a provider not only to his nuclear family but also to the 3000 inhabitants of his village back home- sending everything from money to medication.

"The entire village was crying when they heard the news because of the position of Moussa in this village," said Chechna Sacko, 67, the Gogui's chief right hand man, to the New York Times. "Moussa never forgot his village. He lived there, but every day he thought how could he make his village better."

Back in New York, grief counselors were on hand to make sense of the misfortune for children and faculty at PS 73, the Bronx school which three of the deceased children attended.

"Excluding 9/11 this is the worst loss of life in a fire in our city since the Happyland Social club fire in the Bronx in 1990," said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a press conference. "The fallout from that fire really is heartbreaking. It's obviously terrible for anyone to perish like this. Sometimes it just seems more painful and more unfair when it's children that die. When children die, everyone around them, everyone who loved them, die a little bit as well."

Help the Family

"Since the tragedy occurred we have been on the side of the family," said Cheick Sidi Diarra, Mali's United Nations ambassador, in a phone conversation with The AFRican."We collected information and have sent it back home."

Earlier last Friday, at the Islamic Cultural Center mosque where the families worshiped, he extended the condolences of Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré to the family and community. According to Sidi Diarra, a convoy of top Malian government officials, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs, was expected to arrive and further coordinate relief efforts for the family. Sidi Diarra was joined at the mosque by Mayor Bloomberg; his consulate is working closely with the Mayor's office.

"We call on the Malian community, African community and the New York community to help," said Ambassador Sidi Diarra.

While exact figures of the population in the Bronx are unknown, Ambassador Sidi Diarra estimated that there are between 5,000 to 6,000 Malians living in New York state. This "community has been of strong support not only morally but financially- thousands and thousands of dollars have been raised," said Sidi Diarra, revealing that he and his consular colleagues had made personal contributions as well.

Family friend Mohammed Gakou- answering Moussa Massaga's phone- said "Anything, any help. [They] need help for everything." So far an estimated 21,000 dollars has been raised within the Malian community. Yet domestic funeral expenses and the costs of repatriation of the bodies to Mali- typically 5000 dollars and upwards- will most likely consume these funds. According to Mr. Gakou, the Magassa family members would be buried Monday at a Millstone, New Jersey cemetery after a 1 pm funeral service for both families at the mosque. The remains of the five Soumare family victims were to be flown back home to Mali, Mr. Gakou said.

The broader African community can make their donations through a number of agencies accepting donations on behalf of the The Magassa and Soumare Family Fund:

The Islamic Cultural Center is accepting contributions made payable to The Magassa and Soumare Family Fund at:

371 East 166th Street
Bronx, NY 10456

African Services Committee(ASC)- a non- profit that provides health, housing, legal and social services to more than 10,000 recent African immigrant communities annually- has earmarked a link on their website for online contributions at www.africanservices.com

ASC communications director Catharine Bufalino told The AFRican that the agency has "received over one hundred donations to date", many of them small like one from a well-meaning Harlem resident who walked in off the street and gave them ten dollars in cash. But every bit helps. "As always there is an outpouring of support from New York from all its different communities," said Bufalino.

Two African Service Committee Malian staff members -health educator Alpha Kassogue and outreach worker Adama Traore knew the families personally and were on the ground in the Bronx lending a hand.

Another NGO, Emergency Rights, is accepting clothing and household items. "Somebody came in with a big bag of groceries that's already been delivered," said Lucy, a volunteer- who declined to give her last name. Items can be dropped off at their offices located at:

318 E. 149th St.
Bronx, NY 10451

Any checks sent to their office should be made payable to The Magassa and Soumare Family Fund with envelopes marked to the attention of "The Woodycrest Fire Victims."

Help Your Family: What You Can Do

This tragedy is especially affecting as Africans across the nation recognize themselves in this story. Although the building was crowded, city Department of Buildings officials said it was not illegally divided. There were no building or fire code violations. The home was not required to have sprinklers or fire escapes. It could happen to anyone

The tale of these two immigrant families highlights the plight of Africans living throughout the city often in cramped quarters and distrustful of calling on authorities-even in an emergency-due to uncertain immigration status, and language or cultural barriers. As sad as it may be, there is a cautionary lesson for our community to learn.

Call 911

"She called me on the phone. She said, 'We have a fire.' She screamed. I said, 'Go up to the top floor. Call 911," said Mr. Soumare, describing his late wife's frantic phone call. Though the fire department arrived three minutes and twenty-three seconds after they were notified by a neighbor, it was already too late. The deadly delay was extended as the family tried to douse the flames themselves.

Have an Emergency Plan

New York City Fire Department officials said the blaze was sparked by the overheated electrical cord of a space heater in the ground-floor bedroom. The family had two smoke detectors both with no batteries. It is believed the fire grew for some time-unnoticed.

The woman living in ground level room of the flashpoint fled outdoors for help with her five-year old child, inadvertently leaving the door open. A chimney flue-like path was created allowing the flames and deadly smoke to spread up the only stairwell-a wooden staircase. While some inhabitants escaped from the two front doors and single back exit, others were trapped. One desperate mother, Aisse Magassa, was forced to throw her children out of a window into a void of black smoke so thick she could barely see the Good Samaritan neighbors waiting to catch them below. Aisse herself later jumped and suffered a broken leg but she lived.

Last Friday, Mayor Bloomberg and Fire Commissioner Scoppetta announced a Fire Department plan to distribute more than a 150,000 free 9-volt batteries for smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors throughout the City. Visit the FDNY website for tips on formulating an emergency escape plan and other fire safety information.