UXBRIDGE – An estimated 20 residents of six occupied apartments at 32 South Main St. were left homeless Thursday after a fire swept through the back section of the 3-story brick commercial building and caused extensive damage before it could be extinguished.
Everyone in the building at the time was reported evacuated safely but the day’s high temperatures around 95 degrees resulted in three firefighters being hospitalized for heat exhaustion, according to Fire Chief William Kessler.
The cause of the fire remained undetermined Thursday. “We have just started an investigation and we have no idea as to a cause at this time,” Kessler said.
Kessler said a box alarm for the building came into fire dispatch at about 1:55 p.m. and firefighters were subsequently informed of a smell of smoke in the over 100-year-old building as they responded to the scene.
Police officers responding to the call were able to help the occupants of the building to evacuate and even managed to assist the owner of the first floor bridal shop to get some of the dresses at the business outside as firefighters arrived on scene. At least one couple had been in the business at the time working on wedding arrangements when the fire broke out, according to Police Chief Peter Emerick. One of the seven apartments in the building was reported to be vacant and Emerick said the responding officers determined that everyone had evacuated safely.
Kessler said he observed smoke coming from the third floor windows of the structure and also from the lower levels when he arrived on scene.
As fire began to break out from the third floor, Kessler said a decision was made to pull firefighters already inside out of the building as a safety precaution. The effort to fight the fire was complicated by the number of firefighters available initially and the added stress the day’s high temperatures put on those fighting the fire, according to Kessler.
Firefighters were also tasked with evacuating the nearby town Senior Center which had just held a cookout and also to protect the Keegan Construction Co. headquarters located about three feet away from the burning building.
The fire was sent out to surrounding departments as a six-alarm blaze and towns sending units included Northbridge, Millville, Blackstone, North Smithfield, Milford. The added manpower allowed the local department to rotate out firefighters more quickly to reduce the risk of heat-related problems.
A rehab center was set up near the town offices on South Main Street where firefighters were given fluids and had their vital signs checked before returning to take another turn at fighting the fire, Kessler said. “Their vital signs were checked to see if they were back in a normal range before they were allowed to return,” Kessler said. Kessler estimated that 80 to 100 firefighters were treated in the rehab area during the fire.
Two members of the Millville Fire Department and another firefighter from Northbridge were transported to Milford Hospital to be checked out as a precaution after being assisted in the rehab area, he said. All three were reported to be “doing well,” he said.
Linda Nelson, 67, of Uxbridge, said she was driving up South Main Street past the building as firefighters were setting up to fight the blaze and witnessed heavy smoke coming out of the upper floor windows.
“All I could see was black, black smoke barreling out of right side windows,” she said. “It was really barreling out, big round balls of smoke coming of the windows as much as it could,” she said. Nelson said she was very concerned about what the residents and business owners, the bridal shop and a sign company, lost in the fire. “My heart was broken for them,” she said.
Caty Scharnagle, 19, a student at Stonehill College, said she had been at her job in Shrewsbury when her roommate, Amber Laskowski, 19, called to tell her about the fire. Amber was also at work and got to the scene first where she found their building being destroyed by the flames.
“When I got here the whole top right of the building was spouting flames,” she said. The two residents had a pet kitten in the apartment, Malibu, and didn’t think it had survived.
“They said they couldn’t go into look for her because it was too dangerous so we are just assuming that she’s gone now,” Scharnagle said.
Laskowski said she believed most of her and Scharnagle’s belongings were lost to the fire. “Just knowing that we lost everything is pretty overwhelming,” she said.
After the firefighters had put out the fire in the onetime bank building and commercial block and begun a clean up effort, Kessler said the department was working with the town building inspector to determine if the structure could be entered. Concern remained about the possibility of a wall collapsing and Kessler said a crane would likely be brought to the scene to begin a demolition as the investigation of the fire continued. Laskowski and Scharnagel and other residents of 32 South Main Street were working with emergency officials and the American Red Cross to ensure that they had temporary housing for the night.