CONCOURSE, the Bronx (PIX11) — One by one, caskets were wheeled into the Bronx Islamic Cultural Center from hearses lined up the block on both sides of Clay Avenue between 166th and 167th streets. One of the caskets was a fraction of the size of the 15 others.
It contained the remains of Ousmane Konteh, who, at two years old, was the youngest of the 17 victims of the fire that broke out one week earlier at 333 East 181st Street, where he had been at a babysitter’s home at the time.
Two other children, Haouwa Mohamadou, 5, and her brother, Seydou Toure, 12, had been funeralized days earlier at a small mosque in Harlem, but the place where the funeral for the other 15 victims was held is itself no stranger to devastation as the result of fire. It also stands as an emblem of triumph over adversity.
A Previous Fire Funeral
Fifteen years ago, in March 2007, the Bronx Islamic Cultural Center, or BICC, was the scene of another large scale funeral with small caskets. Nine children from the Magassa and Soumare families were killed when fire consumed the wooden building in the Highbridge section of the Bronx where they all lived. One adult, the mother of four of the children, also perished.
They were all Muslims, whose families were originally from the west-central African nation of Mali. When their funeral, also attended by hundreds upon hundreds of mourners, like the one on Sunday, took place at BICC, the structure was a single-level storefront house of worship, located next to a bodega.
It was a solemn ceremony, with people praying side by side, on prayer rugs laid out in the streets surrounding the mosque.
Two years later, the corner grocery next door had a fire of its own, and the intensity of the flames burned it down, as well as the mosque next door, forcing both structures to be condemned.
Over the course of the next dozen years, contributions from members of the Muslim community throughout the Bronx, as well as other donors, helped the Islamic Cultural Center revive.
In fact, some of the contributions that resulted in BICC expanding and reopening came from the Ar-Rahama mosque, where all 15 victims of the fatal fire on Jan. 9 had been regular worshippers.
Its imam, or spiritual leader, is Musa Kabba. “We are part of that,” he said in a recent interview, referring to BICC.
He also said that BICC represents renewal from tragedy.
“That’s why [the funeral] is being held there,” he said.
Recovery and Renewal
The Bronx Islamic Cultural Center is far more large and grand than it was before fire destroyed it in 2009.
Where there had been a bodega next to it before, BICC has taken over that footprint, in addition to its original one, and has built, from the ground up, a completely new structure.
It’s three stories tall, has a warm, sunset orange brick facade, and has doors on both sides of the corner building that feature elaborate ironwork done in traditional Islamic artistic patterns.
Despite its size, BICC was nowhere close to being able to accommodate all of the mourners, who filled tents set up for three blocks adjacent to the building. They also filled the streets and sidewalks outside of the tents. Each tent held speakers connected to the funeral service, so that mourners could listen in.
In addition to Ousmane Konteh, 2, Haouwa Mohamadou, 5, and Seydou Toure, 12, gone also is the entire Dukuray Family — Haji, 49, Haja Dukerey, his wife, 37, and their three children, Mustapha, 12, Mariam, 11, and Fatoumata, 5.
Their neighbor and friend, Fatoumata Drammeh, 50, and her three children, Fatoumala, 21, Nyumaaisha, 19; and Muhammed, 12, all passed away.
So did Hagi Jawara, 47, and his wife, Isatou Jabbie, 31.
Fatoumata Tunkara, 43, lost her life, along with her son Omar Jambang, 6.
Sera Janneh, 27, died in the blaze.
The uncle of the family that was killed, who’s also named Haji Dukuray, said that having the funeral at BICC was meaningful to him and all of his relatives in part because of it serving as a symbol of revival from loss.
Adding to that, he said in an interview late last week, were the people who made up the BICC community, as well as the community at large.
“It means so much to have the funeral with the support of all of New York,” he said.
The funeral for the fifteen victims is the first large-scale event that BICC has hosted since its reopening in October of last year.