By Jennifer Sullivan and Sandi Doughton
With the first floor of her home in flames, Helen Gebregiorgis rushed upstairs to alert her sister and five young children as the smoke alarm blared.
Gebregiorgis grabbed her 5-year-old niece, Samarah Smith, and dashed downstairs, believing the others were behind her.
Driven back by the heat and flames, her sons Joseph Gebregiorgis, 13, and Yaseen Shamam, 5, and daughter, Nisreen Shamam, 6; her sister, Eyerusalem Gebregiorgis, 22; and a 7-year-old niece, Nyella Smith, huddled in an upstairs bathroom. All five died there, Seattle Fire Chief Gregory Dean said Sunday.
“Everybody was upstairs when she went up to get them; she believed they were following her,” Dean said. “They did not follow her because of the heat and flames. They took refuge on the second floor.”
As investigators continue to probe the cause of Seattle’s deadliest fire in 39 years, Dean described the frantic seconds after flames erupted Saturday morning in Helen Gebregiorgis’ two-story home in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. He also detailed the frustration of the first firefighters to respond as a mechanical malfunction on their engine prevented them from pumping water and directing it onto the fire until another engine arrived 2 ½ minutes later.
That malfunction is the subject of a second, parallel investigation.
The on-scene investigation into the blaze has been completed, but the cause remains undetermined, pending additional testing by the state crime laboratory, Dean said. The fire does not appear to be suspicious, and “at this point we believe it was a tragic event,” he added.
Dean said the fire started in the first-floor “living area,” but he didn’t specify which room. He said the smoke alarm in the home was working.
As Engine 18 pulled up at 334 N.W. 41st St. at 10:09 a.m., firefighters set out their hose and the pump operator went to work so the crew could begin pumping water from its 500-gallon tank, Dean said. But their efforts came to a screeching halt when the pump operator was unable to move a lever to activate the pumping mode.
“It’s hard to say where the mechanical problem was,” Dean said. “Normally, they flip the switch from road gear to pumping gear, but in this case that did not happen.”
A second firefighter from the same Ballard-based crew then tried to get the lever to work and still nothing happened, Dean said. He said there is no mechanical override on the engine in case of such a failure.
Asked Sunday why firefighters from Engine 18 didn’t then try to enter the burning unit to try to rescue the victims, Dean said crews are not allowed to enter burning buildings until water is being poured on a blaze.
“Having flames and fire on the first floor, they cannot proceed onto the second floor until they have got that fire out,” Dean said. “If you don’t put that fire out, you will have that fire follow you and burn you and your hose and remove your escape route also.”
Dean declined to speculate whether the mechanical failure and delay in fighting the fire may have contributed to the loss of life.
Even if the first arriving engine had been able to spray the fire with water, he said, firefighters would have spent a good deal of time battling the first-floor blaze before making their way upstairs to try to rescue the family trapped there.
Nonetheless, Dean said firefighters blamed themselves for the fatalities. “Firefighters are beating themselves up thinking, ‘Could have I done more?’ ” he said.
For Seattle’s tight-knit East African community, mourning for the five victims began Saturday — and will continue through Friday.
Helen Gebregiorgis and her extended family had immigrated from Ethiopia in 1989, according to her brother, Daniel Gebregiorgis, who released the names of the victims on Sunday.
The seven-day mourning period is a tradition that attends all deaths among followers of the Orthodox Christian faith.
But the grief this time is almost unbearable, said Yesake Berehnie, whose 13-year-old godson, Joseph Gebregiorgis, was among the five people who perished in the fire.
“We’re devastated,” Berehnie said outside the Yesler Community Center, where mourners congregated Sunday.
Inside the community center, female family members sat on the floor at the front of the room, some rocking and wailing. Mourners filed forward to pay their respects, then prayed quietly in folding chairs. Others sobbed and moaned.
The week of communal grieving is a way to support the family and let them know others share their pain, said Yonas Kesete, who is related to those who died.
“It’s still hard to believe,” he said, tears in his eyes.
The victims had gathered at Helen Gebregiorgis’ home for a sleepover Friday night after watching the movie “The Karate Kid” at a theater.
Joseph Gebregiorgis was just finishing seventh grade at Seattle’s Whitman Middle School, and was looking forward to basketball camp during the summer.
“Everybody liked him,” Berehnie said of his godson.
Daniel Gebregiorgis said his nephew Yaseen Shamam had just turned 5. “He’s a little guy, but he was a big little guy. He was going to be a football player for sure. He was full of life. Always laughing,” he said.
Daniel Gebregiorgis said his sister Eyerusalem Gebregiorgis was “trying to find herself.” She and their sister Helen were both working as caterers for Waterways Cruises and Events, which hosts wedding receptions and other celebrations.
When his parents and older siblings first left war-torn Ethiopia, they settled in Sudan, where Eyerusalem and Daniel were born, he said. They eventually moved to North Dakota, then Seattle.
“We wanted a better life,” Daniel Gebregiorgis said. “The American dream.
“Now, we’ve just got to take it one day at a time.”
HOW TO HELPCash donations to assist the relatives of the five people killed in Saturday’s fire are being accepted at the Red Door, 3401 Evanston Ave. N., in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood.
Red Door owner Pete Hanning said a bank account for donations will be set up on Monday. Additional community outreach, including a possible fundraiser, is in the works, he said.
On Monday, Fire Department investigators will meet with city mechanics and fleet managers to find out what went wrong on Engine 18, Dean said. If necessary, the Engine 18, a 2008 model, will be sent back to the manufacturer, he said.
The Fire Department likely will end up looking at all engines that have similar equipment to see if they have experienced lever malfunctions, Dean said. He had said earlier that firefighters tested the engine before the fire and everything was in working order.
Engine 18 was manufactured by E-One of Ocala, Fla. A spokesman for the company could not be reached Sunday.
Dean stressed that what happened to Engine 18 had nothing to do with the firefighters or their training. He said the tragedy serves as a reminder that if something “can go wrong it will go wrong at the most inopportune times.”
“I think our firefighters went out yesterday and did their jobs,” Dean said. “They came up against a challenge, and that is mechanical equipment.”
Seattle Times staff reporter Mark Rahner contributed to this report.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or email@example.com