In March, the Sassoon family of Brooklyn, NY was engulfed in a nightmare when a fire at their house led to the worst death toll in seven years for a New York City fire. Truthfully, this event was too painful for me to write about at the time. It is still painful to think about and my daily prayers include ones for physical and spiritual recovery for Gila bat Francis and Tzipporah bat Gila. (The word ‘bat’ means daughter. Prayers for people who are ill identify them by their name and the name of their mother.)
So much sadness. Seven children dead; the mother and surviving daughter face a long recovery. It is impossible to imagine the grief and guilt of the father who was away when the deadly fire destroyed his family.
Reports suggest that a malfunctioning hot plate, left on to warm food for Shabbat, caused the fire. As a Shabbat observing Jew, calls that have been issued to have hot plates turn off automatically as many irons and ovens do now, hit home.
Anytime a tragedy occurs, the human soul rebels against accepting it. Sometimes, we distance ourselves by thinking, “It was those people…It was in a distant country…They didn’t follow the rules…” Sometimes, we desperately propose remedies as if by doing so we can keep tragedy from ever occurring.
There are times when trying to make sure that a similar catastrophe never happens again leads to good legislation. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York in 1911 led to rules about keeping doors unlocked and accessible in the workplace. The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 led to a revision of how lifeboats were managed. Other times, our instinctive need to do something—anything—leads to pointless or even harmful legislation. We end up criminalizing good parents who let responsible children walk home from the park while not helping the child being tortured by his mother’s boyfriend. We make schools gun-free zones, thereby stopping teachers from protecting their charges.
How can this most recent fire encourage productive and life-saving change? It should, for by doing so something positive will sprout from calamity.
Surely, on an individual level, many parents who read of the tragedy will more carefully check the batteries in their smoke detection devices or make sure there are such devices strategically placed around their homes. Hearing how the devices in the Sassoon house were inoperative certainly made me wince. At times, we’ve removed the batteries from smoke detectors. We wanted to have birthday candles lit on a cake or steaks grilling on the broiler without setting off an overly sensitive alarm.
We already have listings to ensure that electric devices meet a safety code. Will I be less likely to use an appliance if I see a frayed cord? I certainly imagine so. In the final analysis, personal responsibility is just that— personal. Only the most totalitarian society controlling every move of its subjects thinks it can keep everyone from doing stupid things. Even that degree of control will not be effective.
Should hot plates be outlawed or forced to turn off automatically after a certain number of hours? Here is where being Sabbath observant conflicts with what might seem a reasonable piece of legislation.
Sabbath observant Jews, such as my husband and myself, do not activate electrical items or initiate fire on the seventh day of the week. In order to have hot food for lunch, various strategies are employed. One of the most traditional foods served on Shabbat goes by various names – cholent, chamim – but it is a heavy stew that cooks overnight. I personally leave my cholent on a heavy metal plate placed over a low flame. The pot goes up before sunset on Friday and we eat it for lunch on Saturday. Another method is to leave on a hot plate or warming drawer overnight. Literally, millions of meals have been kept warm this way in New York over the past few decades. Is it an unnecessary risk? Like anything else, including use of the most benign articles such as bicycles and scissors, we need to behave responsibly.
When I was a teenager, my parents’ friends lost their daughter and two grandsons in a grisly house fire. An electric fire started in their TV set (which was off) during the night. It was a traumatic tragedy and since that date, when we go away for a few days, I unplug unnecessary appliances around the house. Had there been seven children instead of two in that house, should there have been a call to better regulate or outlaw televisions? Of course not.
Keeping food warm overnight is less common than television viewing, but any attempt to make it impossible to do so is ill advised. Firstly, people will circumvent the restriction, possibly leading to more dangerous methods of warming food. Or else, hot plates will be manufactured with controls that override the automatic turn-off, just as a number of ovens already have. Secondly, we already have too much of a nanny state. Sabbath observant Jews and, indeed, all parents, will be more pre-emptive and responsible as a result of the recent horrific tragedy. As we cry for the dead and injured, the fire serves as a reminder that every time an appliance or fire is used we need to be vigilant. Smoke detectors need to be maintained. Already, the Sassoon fire has let to numerous programs for teaching fire prevention in schools and community centers. The father and the mother, (may she and her daughter be blessed with a complete recovery) will live with grief the rest of their lives. Hindsight dictates that installing working smoke detectors and being more vigilant about only using electronic items in good condition should have been a priority. However, no legislation will ever provide the wisdom that hindsight does or cause individuals to always make the right choices.