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Remembering tragic Highbridge fire

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Before a ghastly fire claimed the lives of ten Malian immigrants – nine children – the Bronx paid its burgeoning West African population little mind.

Two years later, West African Bronxites are leading a borough-wide campaign for unity and fire safety.

Hundreds of Highbridge neighbors – Malian and Dominican, Christian and Muslim – packed PS 73 on Saturday, March 7 to memorialize the fire’s victims and promote neighborhood cooperation.

West Africans are the Bronx’s newest immigrant group. Nearly 56,000 reside in the borough, said Sheikh Moussa Drammeh, a Muslim cleric from Parkchester. Many call Highbridge home.

“We’re here to honor those who suffered in 2007,” NYC immigration commissioner Guillermo Linares said. “Your tragedy touched the lives of every New Yorker and sent the city a message. You deserve our support.”

On the night of March 7, 2007, sparks from an electrical cord set Moussa Magassa’s Woodycrest Avenue house on fire. Magassa lost four sons and a daughter. Fellow Malian Mamadou Soumare’s entire family – his wife, two sons and two daughters – perished. The house had two smoke alarms, both without batteries. On Saturday, Fire Department educators shared safety tips and distributed plastic firefighter helmets.

“Every time there’s a fire-related death, we hate it,” said Lt. John Errico. “We’re handing out smoke detector batteries, teaching kids how to be safe.”

The Woodycrest fire horrified Highbridge. According to Earle Brown, acting borough president, it also brought out the hilly nabe’s best. Brown visited members of the Magassa and Soumare families at Lincoln Hospital before they passed away.

The fire made national news in 2007. Mayor Bloomberg responded. So did the Yankees and Senator Hillary Clinton. Priests and rabbis stood by Drammeh. A thousand neighbors joined Magassa in prayer.

“The tragedy brought us together,” said Bishop Angelo Rosario, a religious leader from Co-op City. “After the fire, we embraced the Malian community.”

In 2007, Craig Monteverde was a fifth grade teacher at P.S. 73. Two of his students endured the Woodycrest blaze, one died.

“Bandiougou was learning English,” Monteverde said. “He was so determined. Before the fire, he had a breakthrough. Other students pulled him aside, read with him.”

According to Monteverde, Bandiougou’s death shook P.S. 73.

“It united people in the community – Dominican and African students,” he said. “The kids who wear African clothes, no one makes fun of them now.”

Social workers and city servants also attended the memorial. Drammeh and Malian organizer Bourema Niambele want NYC to aid the borough’s African population. On Saturday, Drammeh’s son, Muhammad, recited Barack Obama’s inaugural address.

“I miss my cousins,” ten-year old Bambe Magassa said. “We used to play and watch TV together. But it’s important to talk about what happened.”

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