In life, victims of deadly Seattle fire were ‘inseparable’ – KOMO-TV STAFF

June 14th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

The four children and young woman killed Saturday in Seattle’s deadliest fire in nearly four decades were close, loving family members who spent a lot of time together, the children’s grieving uncle said Sunday.

And the five victims all died together, too – huddled together in the same upstairs room of the Fremont apartment unit, fire officials said, as more details emerged about the tragic fire.

Also on Sunday, Seattle Fire Chief Gregory Dean confirmed that the first firefighters on the scene were hampered by a series of problems – including a malfunctioning fire truck that wouldn’t spray water.

But he said it was doubtful the fire victims could have been saved even if everything had gone 100 percent perfectly.

Dean said hot flames had spread throughout much of the apartment and heavy black smoke was billowing out when the first units arrived – making entry impossible.

The fire chief says it appears the flames erupted in a living area on the first floor of the two-story unit, and quickly spread to the second floor.

He says the mother, Helen Gebregiorgis, grabbed one of her kids and ran out, thinking the other children and her sister were right behind her.

They weren’t. And when she realized that, she tried to run back into the blazing home, but neighbors grabbed her and held her back as she screamed, “My babies! My babies!” in the growing chaos outside.

The victims were identified Sunday as:

• Eyerusalem Gebregiorgis, 22, Helen’s sister

• Joseph Gebregiorgis, 13, Helen’s son

• Nyella Smith, 7, Helen’s niece,

• Nisreen Shamam, 6, Helen’s daughter

• Yaseen Shamam, 5, Helen’s son

The children’s uncle, Daniel Gebregiorgis, said at a short news conference Sunday that the whole family had gone out the night before to watch a movie, then came back to his sister’s home for a sleepover.

The uncle struggled to hold back his tears as he described the nieces and nephews he loved so well.

He said Joseph was a seventh-grader at Whitman Middle School who loved basketball and was a big Boston Celtics fan.

He said he and his niece Nisreen, 6, were “inseparable – she always mimicked what I did.”

And he described his nephew Yaseen, 5, as a “little guy but a big little guy – he was going to be a football player for sure – full of life, always laughing.”

The family’s news conference came after a long and somber day in which many people with heavy hearts – mostly from the local Ethiopian and Eritrean community – stopped by to mourn the innocent deaths.

“There’s no words you can say to comfort someone who’s lost five members of their family,” family friend Finan Yohannes said earlier. “All you can do is be supportive and give them a shoulder to cry on. There’s nothing you can say to bring their kids back or make them feel any better about the situation. All you can do is be there for them.”

Seattle Fire Chief Gregory Dean said Sunday that the bodies of the four children and the aunt were found huddled together in the second-floor bathroom of the apartment unit.

Adding drama and confusion yesterday, the first fire truck that arrived at the scene – Engine 18 – could not pump any water on the fire – as neighbors looked on in disbelief and firefighters stood there helplessly.

The Seattle Fire Department blamed a mechanical malfunction at a Sunday news conference.

“We kind of live in this world called Murphy’s Law. If it can go wrong, it will go wrong – at the most inopportune time,” Dean said. “We got to see that yesterday, and a lot of people got to witness that.”

The department says a switch on the fire engine would not transfer from drive to pump mode. That meant no water pressure could be delivered.

The truck now sits in a city maintenance garage for a thorough inspection, and to rule out potential problems with other fire trucks.

Dean also confirmed that another fire truck – Engine 9 – was nearer the scene of the blaze when the call came in – but it wasn’t used because it was already on a non-emergency medical call.

In addition, he said, the fire hose fell off of the second truck as it rushed to the scene. But he said it wasn’t needed – ironically – because of the equipment failure on the first truck. Crews ended up fastening the hose from the first truck to the second truck.

Fire Chief Gregory Dean says it is too early to say if the equipment problems kept crews from reaching the victims in time.

“There was definitely a delay in firefighters being able to get there,” he said, but added, “There was a tremendous amount of fire and smoke prior to the fire department’s arrival, which … makes it pretty hard to sustain life in that type of heated environment.”

Records show it was Seattle’s deadliest fire since 1971.

The fire was first reported at about 10:05 a.m. Saturday at the complex, located at Leary Way NW and NW 41st Street, and firefighters arrived on scene about five minutes afterward.

Some neighbors said they heard a “pop” and saw flames through the kitchen window of one apartment unit. Then two neighbors who live nearby raced to the unit with two water hoses as other neighbors called 911.

At about the same time, Helen Gebregiorgis ran outside with a child in her arms, screaming “fire” and “My babies! My babies!”

Meanwhile, one neighbor sprayed water in through the front door into the living room and another broke the kitchen window and sprayed water onto flames from there.

Despite their efforts, flames spread quickly through the apartment unit as the five people inside ran into another room to try to escape the blaze and became trapped there.

By the time firefighters arrived on the scene, neighbors said, the flames had spread throughout the apartment unit and black smoke was pouring out.

Dean said the cause of the fire has not yet been determined, but investigators have found nothing suspicious.

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