Crown Heights community mourns mother, son and grandson killed by house fire

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By Dan Sears

A tight-knit Brooklyn family and neighbors were reeling Monday as they mourned the deaths of three people killed in a powerful blaze on Sunday in Crown Heights.

According to police, Albertha West, 81, her son Michael West, 58, and her grandson Jamiyl West, 33, all died at Kings County Hospital after an early morning fire engulfed their brownstone on Albany Avenue near Sterling Place.

“My mother, my brother and my son were in that house,” Herbert West told Gothamist by phone. “Nobody’s really fine right now.”

Herbert said his family was struggling to process the tragedy, which came just days after another one of his brothers, Henry West, died of a heart attack.

And just a week before that, the family had gathered at the now-destroyed brownstone to celebrate Albertha’s 81st birthday, Herbert said.

“My mother was the love of everybody’s life,” he said. “It was a great celebration, everybody got together, it was fun.”

The house, he added, was for decades “the foundation of a family, the home base.”

Video of the fire shared with Gothamist by neighbor Rodney Washington, who lives behind the house, shows intense flames leaping from the back windows as a first responder appears to search outside with a flashlight.

On Monday, the smell of smoke still lingered in the air in front of the home. A pile of charred furniture — door frames, mattresses, curtains — sat mangled on the sidewalk, calling the attention of neighbors leaving for work.

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Firefighters were also on scene, going in and out of the ground-floor apartment as somber relatives of the West family looked on. The FDNY said the cause of the fire was still under investigation.

“I feel like I lost a family member or friends,” said George Williams, who lives a few doors down. “I wish everybody could have gotten out, everybody.”

Passerby Lorna Holder stopped tearfully in front of the brownstone, after hearing her coworker and friend Michael West was one of the victims. She said West had been a clerk at Woodhull Hospital in Bed-Stuy, where Holder was a nurse, and they had worked together for about 20 years.

“Michael was a wonderful person, very helpful, caring about everyone, patients, staff,” she said. “I had to come, to stand here and say a prayer for him. I can’t believe this.”

Holder said she’d known about Michael’s mother Albertha through the stories he would often tell about her.

“He said his mother was so active,” she recalled. “He always spoke about his mother. His mother was so good to him.”

Neighbor Tamara M., who declined to share her last name, shed a tear for Albertha while walking her dogs on the block Monday. She remembered Albertha as “the most amazing person” and a fixture on the block for at least three decades.

“She comes outside every day to move her car for alternate side parking, speaks to everybody, sits outside to enjoy the sun,” Tamara said. “It’s shocking, it hurts, it makes you concerned because we all live in rowhouses.”

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On Facebook, members of the West family grieved the deaths of their four relatives, including Henry, the brother who’d recently died of a heart attack.

“Please pray for the West Family,” wrote LaShawn Talley-West, Henry’s wife. “Our Matriarch Mother, son and grandson have been called home to be with our Savior.”

Just days before, she’d posted a heartfelt tribute to Henry, and a collage of photos from Albertha’s 81st birthday celebration at the house, featuring the matriarch with a large cake and surrounded by family.

FDNY Chief of Fire Operations John Esposito said 33 fire units and 138 first responders were called to the scene around 4:30 a.m. Sunday and the blaze took several hours to bring under control.

One firefighter was hospitalized with a serious but non-life-threatening injury, Esposito said. Six residents of the building and eight neighbors were treated for injuries at the scene, including smoke inhalation.

Williams, the neighbor from down the block, recalled the commotion he witnessed in the street as he left home for his work shift.

“I came down here, there were people running around there in pajamas, shirts,” he said. “The fire department really hustled to get their stuff together. In the meantime, that flame was just burning stuff up.”

Hannah Wilson, a 25-year-old next-door neighbor of the Wests, said she and her roommate woke up shortly after 4:30 a.m. Sunday to the sound of their fire alarm and the smell of smoke that had infiltrated their apartment. They initially thought it was their own entrance on fire.

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“We just grabbed what we could and got out as soon as possible, and we just ran downstairs,” Wilson said. “There was so much smoke in our entryway that we couldn’t tell if it was us or not, or if it was gonna catch up to us before we got out.”

She said learning about the fire and the Wests’ deaths was “absolutely devastating.”

This is a developing story and may be updated.

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