A Hanukkah fire that started with a lit menorah sparked a raging blaze that killed a loving mother and three young children early Monday morning — plunging Brooklyn’s Syrian Orthodox community into mourning for the second time in as many years.
The victims were identified as Aliza Azan, 39, and her children: Moshe, 11; Yitzah, 7, and Henrietta, 3. Flames quickly consumed the family’s three-story wood-framd home, trapping the victims on the second floor at around 2:30 a.m.
Desperate to save his wife and children, Yosef Azan raced into the burning home but was turned back by flames, according to the Daily News. He was left in critical condition along with three other children.
“This was a tragedy that was felt by every single individual in this community,” said Rabbi Eliyahu Elbaz, of the Sephardic Lebanese Congregation. Elba’s congregation is a sister synagogue to nearby Shevas Achim, where the Azan family had membership.
Per #FDNY Fire Marshals: Cause of today’s fatal 3-alarm fire, 1945 E 14th St #Brooklyn was accidental, unattended lit menorah. Smoke alarm present and operational pic.twitter.com/mJmtsQgZ3S— FDNY (@FDNY) December 18, 2017
The family is part of the tight-knit Sephardic Orthodox community in Sheepshead Bay.
“This is something that came from hakadosh barach hu,” Elbaz added, saying a Hebrew name of God. “We hope that the almighty God will never repeat this kind of thing again.”
Melted upholstery and shattered glass lay in a pile on the patio of the burned-out home, alongside charred pages from prayer books. A silver mezuza affixed to the entry is darkened by smoke.
The blaze, which injured 11 others, is the second deadly fire suffered by the Orthodox communities in southern Brooklyn in two years. In 2015, a fire caused by an overheated hot plate killed seven of the Sassoon family’s eight children in nearby Midwood.
In a heartrending twist, some of the children in the Azan family attended school with the Sassoon children, according to Hamodia.
The tragedy is also being felt across the ocean in Israel, where Aliza Azan’s father, Abraham Hamra, is recognized as the last chief rabbi of Syria. A relative told the New York Post that the bodies will be flown to Israel for burial.
Fire marshals believe the fire was started by an oil menorah, which was found on the first floor.
But neighbors insisted the flames were noticed too late to have been caused by a menorah, which the family would have lit in the early evening.
A neighbor said that the whole block was filled with fire trucks, and that the blaze took more than an hour-and-a-half to put out. He added that his wife helped pull one of the Azan children out of the house.
“It’s a family,” he said. “We are all families here on this block. Responsible for each other.”
Hours later, the 1900 block of 14th Street was quiet, as a few neighbors gathered to stare at the charred remains of the Azan house. Others from the neighborhood walked by to see the ruin, speaking in a daze about the family’s tragedy.
A group of yeshiva boys gossiped across the street, pausing intermittently to watch the firemen guarding the house.
A FedEx delivery man, upon seeing the house, exclaimed, “Oh, my Jesus,” and made the sign of the cross. A young girl who lives in a house across the street told her elder sister, “Your hair smells like fire.”
The Azan family house, at 1945 E 14th Street in Sheepshead Bay, is a shell, with the inside completely burned out.
Neighbors remembered the family as joyful and kind.
“Always happy, always smiling, always making people laugh,” said one woman, who asked not to be named.
Yosef and Aliza Azan were born in Israel. Before moving to Brooklyn, Yosef Azan worked as a shochet, or ritual slaughterer, in Minnesota.
Yosef Azan is a longtime employee of The Hat Box, a menswear store on Coney Island Avenue. In between finding suits for young boys and consulting on hats, his co-workers spoke of their shock at hearing about the tragedy.
“It’s devastating,” said a co-worker named Angel, fighting back tears. “I work with the guy every day. I can’t even talk about it, because it hurts me.”
Angel remembered how Aliza Azan often called her husband at work. He said their children visited their father at work several times a week.
Suits at the store run mainly from dark blue to black. Leather-bound Judaica books sit on shelves, next to stacks of folded dress shirts.
Raymond Heiney, 85, works in the store as a kind of fixer: People call him with their suiting needs, and he relays the order to the employees. He said he used to drive the Azan children to school in the mornings, when the family didn’t yet have a car.
“This is one of the things in life when you have to face reality,” he said. “Things happen.”
Heiney said that Yosef Aran often talks about Jewish law in the store, and used to host a show on JRoot radio, a local Jewish station.
Another employee, who asked not to be named, added that The Hat Box’s owners will make sure Azan comes back to work only when he is ready.
“They’re definitely going to take care of him financially, for sure,” he said. “We don’t leave anybody behind.”