Fire, Possibly Caused by Incense, Kills Man and 2 Children

NY Times - November 19, 2009


A fast-moving fire that may have been sparked by incense swept through the top floor of a six-story apartment building in Brooklyn on Wednesday, killing a man and his two small children, fire officials said.

The blaze began in a bedroom of the family's apartment on the top floor of 654 St. Marks Avenue in Crown Heights just before 12:30 p.m. It was called in from a block away by a fifth-grade teacher whose students spotted the flames from their fourth-floor classroom at Public School 138, fire officials and witnesses said. With her students panicking, the teacher called 911 and gave a rough address of the building.

Fantasia Brown, 10, a student in the class, said the class was seated when a boy yelled: "It's a fire! It's a fire!"

The girl said that the teacher responded: "Somebody might be hurt. Somebody has to call the police."

Working on incomplete information, a fire unit arrived minutes later and entered the apartment building, fire officials said, hoisting ladders to the top floor and breaking through windows to get inside the burning apartment. Once inside, firefighters determined that the blaze was contained to a bedroom. They found the father, identified by the police as Myrtel Jean, 42, and his two children, Fabrice Jean, 2, and Sebastian Jean, 1.

Firefighters' response to the scene was delayed by confusion over the address, a mistake that was quickly corrected, fire officials said.

Once the firefighters arrived, they carried Mr. Jean and the children down to the street and performed CPR as shocked neighbors peeked out of windows and formed crowds on the sidewalk.

"I was in my window when they brought out the baby," said Robin Sumpter, who lives across the street at 637 St. Marks, facing the scene of the fire. "They put him on the hood of a car, and they tried to resuscitate him. Then they brought out the man on a stretcher, and they were working on him, but he was gone."

Like several other neighbors, Ms. Sumpter said she initially had little idea what was happening until fire trucks pulled up outside.

"I didn't think it was serious, because I didn't see any smoke," she said.

Mr. Jean and the two children were pronounced dead at Kings County Hospital Center. No one else was injured in the blaze, fire officials said, and no one else had been in the apartment.

Neighbors said Mr. Jean might have been watching the children while their mother was at work.

The cause of the fire had not been determined on Wednesday night, but fire officials said they had discovered evidence that incense had been burning in the bedroom, and they believed there were no smoke detectors in the apartment.

The mix-up over the address, and confusion over the address in an earlier Brooklyn fire prompted criticism from the Uniformed Firefighters Association, which has complained about the city's new dispatch system.

Frank Gribbon, a spokesman for the Fire Department, said that for the fatal fire units were dispatched based on information from two 911 callers — both via cellphones — reporting a fire in the vicinity of Rogers Avenue and Prospect Place. The first two units arrived at that location in three minutes and nine seconds, a city official said.

They learned "upon their arrival at the callers' location that the fire was around the corner," Mr. Gribbon said.

He added, "The units immediately proceeded to that location and initiated fire rescue and suppression operations."

"They did not respond to a wrong address," Mr. Gribbon said. "They responded to the location provided by both calls to 911."

It was unclear how much longer it took firefighters to get to the actual fire scene from the initial location they responded to, a city official said.

A third unit got to the scene within six minutes and reported that the first two units were already there, the city official said.

Earlier, at about 9 a.m., firefighters were sent to another apartment building in Brooklyn, at 570 Lefferts Avenue near the Crown Heights border. Six people were hurt, including two people who sustained serious injuries — one of them a police officer — and another person whose condition was listed as critical on Wednesday night.

The Fire Department said that firefighters initially responded to the wrong address in that case because a dispatcher typed in "470 Lefferts" instead of "570," causing a delay of about 45 seconds.

A keystroke error was also cited as a factor in firefighters' delayed response to a fire that killed three people on Nov. 7 in Queens.

"The F.D.N.Y. responded to two significant Brooklyn fires today, and both times firefighters were sent to the wrong address," said Stephen J. Cassidy, the firefighters union president, attributing the problem to a new dispatch system.

"As we have said in the past, the new dispatch system does not work," he said.

Mr. Long, the Fire Department spokesman, suggested that the dispatch system was not to blame for the delay in the fatal fire.

"We have a caller who is saying, ‘I see a fire,' " he said. "They direct us to a building. They can't see the address. A caller gave the best information they had from where they were."

Al Baker and C. J. Hughes contributed reporting.