Nightmare in B'klyn

NY Daily News - December 24, 2006

by VERONIKA BELENKAYA and ROBERT F. MOORE

A toddler playing with matches ignited an inferno in his Brooklyn home that critically burned him, killed his mother and forced his teenage brother to bail out the window of their sixth-floor apartment, officials said yesterday.

"I ran into the room where my mother was," Kimali Stephens, 14, told relatives from his hospital bed. "I kicked in the door to help my mother, but I couldn't get any air."

Faced with the decision to flee or burn, he opened a window, grabbed a cable and started to maneuver his way down. He shimmied his way to the third floor before he let go and dropped to the pavement, breaking his ankle.

Kimali, unaware of his mother's death, was in stable condition at Maimonides Medical Center. Kyle, the 2-year-old who sparked the tragedy, was in critical condition at Staten Island University Hospital with burns over more than half his body.

Their mother, Sandra (Debbie) Stephens, 41, died at New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell after suffering burns to more than 80% of her body.

"We were just two days away from Christmas," said her sister-in-law, Donnette Miller, 35. "I bought a little teddy bear for the baby, a basketball for Kimali and a Barbie doll for the little girl."

Stephens' daughter, Kayann, 8, escaped the blaze unharmed. Relatives said Stephens had planned to move to Maryland to live with her brother. Some of her bags were already packed.

Fire officials said the blaze broke out in a twin-size mattress about 11:30 p.m. Friday on the top floor of 1809 Albemarle Road in Prospect Park South, where at least nine people were living. Investigators found a box of stick matches in a bedroom.

"Fire!" screamed the toddler, waking up his family. "Fire!"

A law enforcement source said Stephens tried to drag the burning mattress out of the apartment, instead of closing the door and containing the fire to one room. Once she and Kimali got it into the living room, the mattress burst into flames, sending the teen running into one bedroom and his mother into another. That's when Kimali escaped through the window.

After precious minutes passed, someone finally called 911 and more than 200 people fled the building.

"This tragedy could have been prevented," said Chief Fire Marshal Louis Garcia. "Close the door, get out of the building and call 911."

Three other residents suffered minor injuries. They were identified as Carol Porter-Campbell, 45; Cladius Campbell, 43, and Cevatius Campbell, 12.

Last night, Christopher Reid, Stephens' brother, raced up from his Maryland home after learning of the fire.

"Unfortunately, given the holiday season we're in, to go through a tragedy like this - it's difficult to deal with," said Reid, a former Army sergeant who lost a hand and a leg when he was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Somalia. "We're a strong family and we're coping."

With Mike Jaccarino, Warren Woodberry Jr., Jotham Sederstrom, Brendan Brosh and Michael Daly