SEATTLE - Relatives and friends of a woman and four children killed in a fast-moving apartment fire grieved as officials tried to determine why a problem with a fire engine briefly delayed the response to one of the city's deadliest blazes.
The Seattle Times reported that Helen Gebregiorgis lost her sons, 13-year-old Joseph Gebregiorgis and 5-year-old Yaseen Shamam, and her 6-year-old daughter, Nisreen Shamam, in the Saturday fire in the city’s Fremont neighborhood.
Also killed were her 22-year-old sister, Eyerusalem Gebregiorgis, and 7-year-old niece, Nyella Smith, her brother, Daniel Gebregiorgis, told the newspaper.
The extended family came from Ethiopia in 1989, he said.
The Times said Helen Gebregiorgis, her sister and the children had gathered for a sleep-over Friday night in the three-bedroom, two-story apartment.
The cause of the fire, which was confined to the one unit, was not immediately known.
The first engine to respond had a problem with a pump that prevented it from spraying water, but a second truck arrived minutes later, Fire Department spokeswoman Helen Fitzpatrick said. The fire was put out within about 40 minutes.
It was the highest death toll for a Seattle fire in recent memory.
“We haven’t had anything like this in at least the last 10 years,” Fitzpatrick said.
One firefighter received minor injuries when he jumped from a truck to move a hose that had fallen from another engine, she said.
Witnesses told the newspaper that Helen Gebregiorgis apparently fled her apartment with one child and was restrained by neighbors who feared she might run back inside.
“She said, ‘My babies, my babies, my babies are inside!”’ said witness Lisa May, of Bellevue.
May tried to get to the burning apartment but was driven back by smoke, she said.
“They were good, good people. My heart just bleeds for them. So many lives,” said Debbie Tesfamariam, a family friend.
The apartment is owned by the Seattle Housing Authority. Spokeswoman Virginia Felton said a smoke alarm went off.
The Times said hundreds of members of Tigray Community Association gathered Saturday night at a community center to mourn the dead. Tigray is a region of Ethiopia.
“I just want my babies,” said Helen Gebregiorgis, crying bitterly and pacing the sidewalk outside the center as a group of women tried to console her.
“This is too big a disaster for a small community like ours to deal with,” Berhane Abraha, a spokesman for the group, told newspaper.
Fire Chief Gregory Dean said engines were dispatched at 10:04 a.m. The truck with the mechanical problem arrived at 10:09 a.m., and a second truck about two minutes later, and a third at 10:12 a.m. He said the problem would be investigated, but crews tested the rig Saturday morning and the equipment worked.
“Our firefighters believe they can save everybody, so they’re beating themselves up right now trying to figure out what happened,” the chief said.