Calls to prayer rang out from a Bronx mosque Wednesday as a bereaved community prepares to bury its dead — 17 souls — in the coming days and families seek closure from New York City's most devastating fire in decades.
Among those who await funeral rites are a 2-year-old boy, a mother who perished with three of her children, and a family of five, as well as a husband and wife whose four children were now orphans. On Wednesday, the first funerals were held for two of the youngest victims, as mourners poured into the streets outside the Timbuktu Islamic Center in Harlem. The child-sized caskets carried 12-year-old Seydoo Toure and his 5-year-old sister, Haowa Mahamdou.
“This community, these people have gone through so much,” said Sheikh Musa Drammeh, a spokesperson for a community with a deep Muslim faith. At least a dozen victims worshipped at the Masjid-Ur-Rahmah mosque, just blocks from Sunday’s devastation.
“Now they are mourning, but they are very understanding that if it happened, it had to happen," he said. “And they have no right to question why it happened.”
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Community leaders were expected to huddle Wednesday afternoon to plan out funeral arrangements and decide if any of the dead will be repatriated. The vast majority of those who died in the fire at a Bronx apartment complex had ties to Gambia, Africa's tiniest country.
“The most important thing is really giving each other support. We are all members of the same community, so we are like family,” said Haji Dukuray, whose niece, Haja, died in the fire with her husband and their three children — Fatoumata, 5, Mariam, 11, and Mustafa, 12.
Mustafa had just celebrated his birthday, the night before the fire.
“Such beautiful angelic eyes,” neighbor Renee Howard, 68, had said about Mustafa earlier in the week.
The medical examiner's office said all the victims suffocated from the thick smoke that poured out of a third-floor apartment, where officials say a malfunctioning electrical space heater sparked the deadly fire.
The fire itself didn't spread far, but it produced plumes of thick black smoke that streamed into the hallway before filling the stairwell.
People ran down the darkened steps, some from the top floor of the 19-story building. Many escaped, but others collapsed and perished on their way down.
A list of names of the deceased from New York City police included eight children. The dead ranged in age from 2-year-old Ousmane Konteh to 50-year-old Fatoumata Drammeh, who died along with three of her children — Foutmala, 21, Nyumaaisha, 19, and Muhammed, 12.
Ishak Drammeh arrived at the mosque Wednesday to join in prayers, and make funeral arrangement for his wife and three children, who he plans to lay to rest in the United States.
Drammeh was drained, but calm as he spoke outside the mosque.
“I try to deal with it,” he said. “I try to take it from God. Every time I think of them, I pray for them.”
He was thankful that another daughter survived and hopes his son Yacub, 16, will soon be released from the hospital.
He was away for work in Columbus, Ohio, when a cousin informed him of the fire.
Musa Kabba, the imam at the Masjid-Ur-Rahmah, said the mosque was trying to organize prayers and funerals as quickly as possible. He has asked congregants to be patient, as the medical examiner’s office releases more of the dead.
Until then, families wait.
Islamic tradition usually calls for burial within 24 hours, but the grieving has been further drawn out by the slow pace in which loved ones were being released to funeral homes. The Imam told NBC New York that they are waiting for the medical examiner to release the bodies, which they expect to happen Thursday.
“We’re all very anxious to be honest with you,” said Dukuray. “It’s the most important thing to know right now and I can’t focus on anything until that that really happens.”
But amid the tragedy, he and others said, the fate of their loved ones would not be in the hands of Allah.
"As a Muslim, what we taught in our faith, what it teaches us, when anything happens to us when there's a disaster or whether you lose something or you lose a loved one," he said, “is that the good Lord has allowed it."
Dukuray continued: "The only thing we are guaranteed in this life is death.”