Four New Jersey Children Killed in House Fire

TEANECK, N.J. (AP) - Hours after firefighters responding to a report of smoke could find nothing wrong, a house erupted in flames early Tuesday morning, killing four children and critically injuring their mother.

Two other children were rescued by a neighbor who propped a ladder against the burning home.

The dead children were Ari Seidenfeld, 15; his brothers, Noah, 6; and Natan, 4; and a 5-year-old sister, Adira, said police Lt. Norman Levine.

Fire Chief John Bauer said the fire department got a call from the house at 8:30 p.m. Monday reporting smoke in the basement of three-story brick Tudor.

''On our arrival, there was no smoke,'' he said. ''We spent over a half-hour checking the house. We couldn't find anything wrong with the house. We checked all the electrical devices.''

Five hours later, the family's nanny, Betty Mbaza, 37, was asleep on a couch on the first floor when she awoke to heavy smoke, Levine said.

''She woke up and yelled up to the mother,'' Levine said. ''Apparently they couldn't make it down the stairs. They tried to get out the windows, but only a few of them made it.''

Mbaza then ran outside to a neighbor's house, where she called 911 on her cell phone. That call was received at 1:43 a.m., followed almost immediately by three other 911 calls from neighbors frantically reporting the fire.

Police were on the scene within a minute, and when the first officers arrived, they found a neighbor with a ladder propped up against the side of the burning house, Levine said. The mother, Philyss Seidenfeld, 42, had already handed two of the children to the neighbor, whom police did not identify, who carried them down the ladder to safety.

When firefighters arrived, Seidenfeld was trapped in a narrow second-floor bathroom window, whose frame they had to wrench out of the wall to free her. She was listed in critical condition at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, hospital spokeswoman Robin Lally said. The nanny was in serious condition at Hackensack University Medical Center.

The children's father was not at home, Levine said. Broadcast reports said Seidenfeld was divorced.

Once firefighters finished rescues and searches, it took about 30 minutes to put out the fire, Bauer said.

''It was a very fast-moving fire in the basement that created smoke and heat, and went up through the walls,'' he said.

At least three smoke detectors inside the house were functioning properly, the fire chief said. He said the children appear to have died from smoke inhalation.

The two children who survived the fire were sisters, Zahava, 14, and Aviva, 7. They were being evaluated at the Hackensack hospital.

A neighbor, Betty Kay, said her daughter played with the family's children on Friday afternoons so the mother could prepare for the Jewish Sabbath.

''The kids were adorable, adorable playful kids,'' she said. ''It was a very busy household. She was a very special woman. Everyone in the community is in tremendous shock and grief over this loss of life, all of us. We all can't function. Everyone in the community is calling to see what they can do to help.''

Friends and neighbors said Seidenfeld had adopted a boy with a developmental disability. Her oldest child, a 17-year-old daughter named Helena, lives in Israel.

Leslie Zoldan, a friend of Seidenfeld, described her as ''a very kind, generous, good woman. I love her. She adopted a special needs child, and God only gives children like this to people who can handle it.''

''She doesn't let things get her down,'' added another friend, Phyllis Krug. ''She's just an amazing person. This is just such a tragedy. It's a loss for all of us.''

Several people in the neighborhood's close-knit Jewish community stood in front of the family's house and recited prayers for the dead from a prayer book, some rocking back and forth as they did so. Krug's 16-year-old daughter, Shoshana, was one of them.

''I asked for God to put them in a good place and make sure He didn't make any mistakes,'' she said.

The Bergen County prosecutor's arson investigation unit was at the home Tuesday, but authorities said they had not determined what started the fire. Bauer said investigators determined there was a problem with the home's furnace, but said that was ruled out as the fire's cause.

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