WOONSOCKET – A rare case of back-to-back tenement fires Thursday came with an unusually heavy toll – no injuries, but a total of 61 tenants displaced from their apartments, including a number of infants and toddlers.
Those who could not find emergency shelter with family members and friends – 23 adults and five children – are staying at the Holiday Inn, courtesy of the American Red Cross.
The hotel aid was slated to expire by Monday, however, unleashing a mini-wave of newly homeless on the city’s already thin-stretched safety net.
“I think our biggest problem right now, and it’s not just in Woonsocket, is it’s taking longer for people to find apartments,” said Elizabeth McDonald, director of emergency services for the Red Cross. “There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of apartments available for people with rents in our price range.”
Firefighters had just cleared a fire at 179-183 Lincoln St. about 4 Friday afternoon when, less than six hours later and barely a half-mile away, a second erupted at 272-294 Front St.
Police reports say 13 people lived in five units at the former, and 48 in 16 occupied units at the latter. There were also two vacant units in the sprawling Front Street tenement house.
“We get a lot of false alarms, so at first we didn’t think it was anything,” said Lisa Jawneh. “As soon as we left our apartment you could smell the smoke.”
A waitress at Chan’s, Jawneh and her husband, Mamadou, were interviewed in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn as her husband was driving her to work Friday morning.
They described a chaotic scene on Thursday night outside the Front Street multifamily where she had lived for five years. She and her husband said tenants were crowded on the sidewalk in the cold weather, some of them half-dressed, as flames shot out of a window on the first floor and firefighters converged on the residence.
“We were lucky to get out when we did,” she said.
Her husband added: “It was a terrible night for us. It was cold. I came out in my sandals and we stayed outside a long, long, long time. It was freezing.”
A scorched swatch of siding fanned out in a giant V-shape on the facade, from the ground floor to the roof of the building, where windows had already been boarded up by a cleanup crew early Friday morning. Workers were allowing tenants to enter the building to retrieve belongings from some portions of the residence.
Malinda Brown of North Providence said she arrived amid the chaos after her parents, Ray and Marie, called her to say “their house was on fire,” she said.
“We’re trying to salvage whatever we can because we don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the day,” said Brown, who was putting her parents up at her house for now.
Assistant Deputy State Fire Marshal Lt. Michael Morin of the Woonsocket Fire Department said the fire alarm and other utilities are located in the middle six-unit cluster that sustained the most damage from the fire. Theoretically, Morin said, the house could be restored to code if the utilities, including the alarm system, were somehow rerouted, but it’s unclear how long that work would take.
The owner of the property, Dave Glashow of Barrington, did not return telephone calls.
Morin said investigators quickly determined the fire was the result of an accident. The source was traced to a table lamp in a child’s bedroom on the second floor. The lamp was found beneath what looked like the incinerated remains of a thick sweater, toys and other debris.
“You could tell it’s where the fire started because it was the area of the most intense charring,” said Morin. “There was a bunch of combustibles right there. The bed itself was the biggest fire load that was in the room.”
Three alarms were struck for the fire, which drew mutual aid from departments in Lincoln, Cumberland, North Smithfield, Smithfield, Burrillville and Bellingham. The first units arrived about 9:30 p.m. and firefighters didn’t clear until about 3:30 in the morning, he said.
Because firefighters adopted a shift schedule based on 24-hour rotations recently, the firefighters who had spent the afternoon extinguishing the fire on Lincoln Street were the same ones who battled the blaze on Front Street, said Morin. He couldn’t remember the last time the same shift had been called on to fight two major fires in one day, but Morin said the likelihood of it happening with the new shift schedule is greater than it used to be.
It’s exhausting, said Morin, but it comes with the territory.
“Before when there was a fire like this there were two shifts,” said Morin. “Now one shift is fighting both fires. You don’t get much of a chance to catch your breath. Certainly you run the risk of more injuries.”
While investigators quickly pinpointed the cause of the latter fire, Morin said the probe of the blaze that gutted the Lincoln Street tenement is still open. He said it’s clear that the fire started outside the house, on a rattan settee that was located on a porch.
It’s an unofficial smoking seat for tenants, and one woman told firefighters she smoked a cigarette on the sofa around 9:30 a.m., roughly two hours before the fire was first reported. It’s possible an ash could have survived long enough to spread to the chair, but firefighters aren’t ready to say that’s how the fire started.
Despite the high number of tenants affected, no one was injured, and several cats and dogs were also rescued. Maybe the most inspiring moment of the back-to-back calamities came when Capt. Keith Lopes entered the smoky Lincoln Street residence and came out carrying a Yorkshire terrier that belongs to one of the tenants.
“It was kind of ironic because he has Yorkshire terriers at home and he was able to save someone else’s,” he said.