WOONSOCKET – A late morning fire Saturday forced residents of a five-family apartment building at 24 Hope St. to flee for their lives.
All of the residents were reported to have made it to safety even though two were forced to jump from a second-floor window and a pregnant woman and her young child had to be assisted from their apartment by a neighbor.
The 11:23 a.m. fire heavily damaged the three-story, wood-frame building and the reported 15 people living there were all expected to be left homeless.
Fire department personnel reported the structure lacked working smoke detectors, a fact that could have added to the danger to residents had the fire not been quickly discovered.
Ismael Martinez, 33, was at home in his third-floor apartment with his wife, Julie, and their two children, Damian, 7, and Trinidee, 3, when he saw flames outside his bedroom window.
“I was upstairs on the third- floor and I saw fire out the window,” Martinez said. The resident said he immediately got his family out and went around banging on the doors of all the other apartments to alert his neighbors.
Martinez said he assisted one woman who was pregnant and her three-month-old baby from her apartment.
After getting his own family out, Martinez said, he returned to his third-floor apartment to get the family's dogs, Baby and Princess, and almost became overwhelmed by the deepening pall of smoke. Telling Princess, a German Rottweiler, and Baby, a Brazilieros Fila, to go out, Martinez said the pets led him down the flights of stairs to safety. He went to hospital along with his family and other residents to be checked out for injuries.
Two residents of a second-floor apartment were reported to have jumped from a window on the front of the building down about a one-story drop to the ground to make their escape. Martinez said everyone who went to the hospital was OK and he returned to the scene wearing hospital scrubs while the fire was still burning in his home.
“My kids were in that room where the fire is going through the roof,” he said while watching firefighters working to extinguish the fire.
He also had praise for his pets in helping him to get out. “I couldn't see anything, my dogs saved my life.”
Sarith Rouen, 28, a resident of Olo Street, said he had just turned onto South Main Street after going out to eat breakfast with his son, Ethan, and saw black smoke coming from his neighborhood.
After arriving at his house, Rouen said, he saw fire coming from the building behind his yard.
“The fire was right on top of the porch and I couldn't tell if it was coming from inside or outside the building,” he said. He said he could see people running out of the building so he called 911 to alert the fire department.
“It's just sad to see this happening,” Rouen said as firefighters on an aerial ladder hit a gaping hole in the roof with the apparatus' water canon.
Although residents said the fire may have been started by an electrical heater in a first-floor apartment, Deputy Fire Chief Roger Perreault said the cause remained under investigation by local and state fire marshals at the scene.
The blaze, breaking out in the building next door to the city's former Hope Street School, had a good start on fire companies as they arrived at the scene, according to Perreault.
“There was heavy fire and smoke coming from the second floor and quickly extended into the third floor, he said.
The apartment building had what appeared to be a basement level apartment accessible from the front of the property and a first-floor entrance on the side of the building above it, according to Perreault.
Firefighters made an immediate entry to search the dwelling for occupants and rescued a pet dog still inside as they worked their way through the five apartments, Perreault said.
The fire's initial extent into the upper floors prevented the responding companies from knocking down the heavy load of flames from the inside, and firefighters experienced “flash over” conditions while venting the roof.
A recall was sounded at that point to allow firefighters manning outside lines to work the fire from the roof openings and windows, according to Perreault.
“It just wasn't safe,” Perreault said of the initial effort to stop the fire from inside the building. Two firefighters working in the upper level were later checked out for minor burns and a third firefighter suffered a muscle strain during the effort, he said.
The close confines of the Constitution Hill neighborhood also made setting up the aerial truck difficult as its crew had to clear close-by electrical wires. The vehicle was later moved to a second location as burning debris from the fire began to fall near it.
After knocking down the heavy flames from the outside, firefighters were able to re-enter the heavily-damaged building to bring the fire under control. The Hope Street school, now home to the Connecting for Children and Families before and afterschool program, was not believed to have been damaged by the nearby fire.
A brief power outage occurred while the fire was being fought by city fire companies and responding mutual aid units from surrounding communities. Woonsocket Police patrol officers blocked off sections of Hope Street and Olo Street to traffic during the fire and the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Red Cross also responded with its disaster scene vehicles to assist the affected residents in locating temporary shelter.