Voodoo Candles Ignited Deadly Fire, Officials Say

NY Times - February 26, 2011

by AL BAKER

A fatal five-alarm fire that roared through a building in Flatbush, Brooklyn, last Saturday was ignited by candles arrayed around a bed for a voodoo ceremony, Fire Department officials said Friday.

City fire marshals have ruled that the blaze, at 346 East 29th Street, was started by accident, said a spokesman for the department. Though the investigation is continuing, it is unlikely that anyone will face criminal charges in connection with the fire, said the spokesman, James Long.

But forensic evidence and interviews with witnesses have shed light on how a combination of lengthy delays in calling 911 and dangerous circumstances allowed the flames to gain strength, spread upward from a fourth-floor apartment and ultimately kill a 64-year-old woman living two floors up, on the building's top floor, officials said.

The woman, Mary Feagin, was a retired guidance counselor.

After the candles ignited some bedding and clothing strewn around Apartment 4-A, where the voodoo ceremony was taking place, the man performing the ceremony made a futile attempt to douse the flames with water from a bathroom sink rather than dial 911, which easily wasted more than three minutes, Mr. Long said.

Then, in response to billowing smoke, a man in an adjacent room flung open a window and propped a door open with a chair; instead of dissipating the condition, that action allowed wind gusts of up to 40 miles per hour to shoot "the flames back inside, creating a blowtorch effect" and pushing the fire into a common hallway, according to a Fire Department news release.

"Now, other doors on that fourth floor are also left open and the fire travels in those apartments," Mr. Long said. "That helps the fire grow."

Finally, firefighters from Engine Company 248 were delayed by more than a minute in getting to the fire because they were at another emergency, attending to a police officer in the adjacent 67th Precinct station house, who had accidentally shot himself in the leg.

Fire marshals pieced together the facts of the voodoo ceremony, and its role in starting the fire, by examining charred remains and by interviewing the voodoo priest and the woman who hired him for $300 to chase away evil spirits and bring her good luck.

In the woman's account to marshals, she and the man she hired had undressed and gotten into bed, with the candles arrayed around them, as part of the ceremony, the official said. Later, when the marshals pressed the man, he confirmed what the woman had said, the official said