A set of voodoo candles used in a “good luck” ritual set off the massive Feb. 20 East Flatbush fire that killed one woman and left 47 families homeless last week — and fire officials say the early evening blaze could have easily been contained had the occupants of the apartment called 911 instead of trying to put it out by themselves.
Residents inside opened the doors and windows in an attempt to vent the smoke, but heavy winds buffeting the E. 29th Street building between Clarendon Road and Avenue D fanned the flames — causing “blowtorch” conditions that pushed the fire out into the hallway, FDNY Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said.
“Time and time again we respond to tragedies that could have been so easily prevented,” Cassano said. “This fire had so many of those elements. Hopefully others will learn from this tragedy.”
Tenants Association president Mary Feagin, 64, was killed and 11 residents were injured when the fire ripped through the home.
Many tenants lost everything they owned as the fire ate through the top three floors of the six-story building.
The fire erupted in a fourth-floor apartment in the back of the building, where a woman was visiting a male tenant knowledgeable in the voodoo arts.
The woman paid the tenant $300 to perform a special ceremony that would bring her good luck, investigators learned.
During the ritual the tenant arranged several voodoo candles around a bed, but one of them fell over, igniting the bed linens and some clothing.
Fire officials said the tenant tried to douse the blaze with water, but opened the window at the same time, fueling the fire.
Realizing that the battle was lost, both the tenant and his client ran out of the apartment, leaving the door open behind them — another terrible mistake, an FDNY spokesman said.
“The fire quickly extended to the fifth, sixth and seventh stories,” he explained. “Once it hit the roof, it went clear across the entire building.”
Twenty firefighters suffered a smattering of minor injuries as they spent six hours evacuating the building and fighting back the blaze.
The building was left an uninhabitable, ice covered mess, witnesses said, adding that homeless residents spent the frigid night with relatives, at hotels or through housing provided by the Red Cross.
Yet there were some bright spots to the tragedy. In the days following the blaze, two tenants were reunited with pets they thought perished in the fire.
Resident Sonia Hamilton found her poodle Ralphie alive and well, hiding under her bed when she returned to her apartment to get some belongings the next day. Then, three days later, tenant Chiffon Gillette was reunited with Fatty Girl — his black cat.