The scene unfolded early Thursday during New York's deadliest fire in nearly two decades - a blaze that killed eight children and one adult, part of an extended family led by African immigrants who shared a row house near Yankee Stadium.
The children tossed from the three-story building survived, authorities said. The woman who threw them jumped but survived.
The fire was sparked by an overheated space heater near a mattress in a basement bedroom, then raced up a stairway pushed by air from broken back windows, said Fire Chief Salvatore Cassano. Most of the 22 residents - 17 of them children - were stranded on the upper floors as the blaze raged for two hours.
"I can't recollect a fire where we lost eight children," Cassano said.
Neighbor Edward Soto ran toward the fire, then stared in disbelief as an infant was tossed from the building.
"All I see is just a big cloud of white dust, and out of nowhere comes the first baby," said Soto, who caught the child while with another neighbor. Moments later, he caught a second child. At least one of the children was not breathing.
Firefighters worked for two hours in freezing predawn temperatures to bring the flames under control. The home had two smoke alarms, but neither had batteries. Police said there was no evidence of a crime.
The dead were found throughout the house, mostly on the upper floors, with babies still in their cribs. The victims included five children from one family, along with a wife and three other children from a second family.
Word of the fire spread grief across two continents, from the Bronx to villages in Mali, a West African country about twice the size of Texas and one of the poorest nations in the world.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," said a devastated Mamadou Soumare, a livery cabdriver whose wife, son and 7-month-old twins died in the blaze. "I love her. I love my wife."
Soumare was driving through Harlem when he received a frantic cell phone call from his wife, Fatoumata, who relatives said died in the fire. "She said, â€˜We have a fire,'" Soumare recalled. "She was screaming."
Soumare rushed home in his cab, only to watch helplessly as their home became a fiery tomb.
Moussa Magassa, an official of the New York chapter of the High Council for Malians Living Abroad, was headed back to the city from a business trip to Mali after receiving the grim news that nearly half of his 11 children were dead, said council representative Bourema Niambele.
"He's the best in our community," said Imam Mahamadou Soukouna, a Muslim cleric and family friend. "It's very, very, very sad what has happened to us today."
Magassa arrived in New York about 15 years ago, friends said. One neighbor said Magassa and Mamadou Soumare were brothers. Fatoumata Soumare was from the village of Tasauirga and left Mali for the Bronx about six years ago, friends said. The death toll might have been higher if not for the efforts of Soto and another neighbor, David Todd. Todd, 40, who lived next door, said one child was already on the ground in the yard when he arrived with Soto outside the burning home. "Please God, help my children!" the woman inside screamed while tossing the children out - and then jumping from the window. Another neighbor, Elaine Martin, said flames were shooting from the building when she arrived, and a shoeless woman in a nightgown stood crying in the street. "My kids is in there, my kids is in there," the woman wailed to Martin. Neighbor Charles O'Neal, 21, watched as firefighters passed along babies still in their pajamas. Later, O'Neal saw two of the children dead, splayed across white plastic on the ground. There were reports of 19 injuries, including four firefighters and an emergency medical worker. A 7-year-old girl remained in critical condition, while a pair of 6-year-olds and a 24-year-old were in stable condition. Part of the problem, according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was that residents apparently tried to extinguish the fire themselves. "Once they were notified, the Fire Department was on the scene in a little more than three minutes," the mayor said. "Sadly, that was not enough time." The home did not have a fire escape and was not required to under city building codes. There were no complaints or violations on record against the building, constructed in 1901. In February, Moussa Magassa applied for a permit to divide the building into three apartments. Such a change would have required a fire escape or other evacuation route, city buildings department spokeswoman Kate Lindquist said. The dead, according to family members, included Fatoumata Soumare, 42, and three children: a son, Dgibril, and 7-month-old twins, Sisi and Harouma. A fourth child, 7-year-old Hasimy, escaped the carnage, her father said. The family members provided different name spellings than the authorities did. Authorities identified the members of the Magassa family as four brothers: Bandiougou, 11, Mahamadou, 8, Abudubucary, 5, and Bilaly, 1; and their sister, 3-year-old Diaba. Varying accounts had the families' names spelled differently. The fire was New York City's deadliest since the 1990 Happy Land social club blaze in the Bronx that killed 87 people.