WOONSOCKET – Security cameras helped investigators quickly zero in on careless disposal of a cigarette as the cause of a house fire at 631 South Main St. Sunday that left 18 people homeless and two firefighters injured.
The elaborate surveillance system was maintained by the owner of the three-story tenement near Great Road and captured images of a tenant smoking on the first-floor porch shortly before the three-alarm fire engulfed the dwelling, said Mike Sweeney, chief of investigations for the state fire marshal’s office.
The images, in combination with the heavy charring on the exterior porch, led investigators to conclude that careless disposal of cigarettes caused the fire, he said. Either a cigarette or ashes ignited a couch on the porch, and the flames climbed up and into all three levels of the house in a matter of minutes.
“The homeowner had cameras trained on the house,” said Sweeney. “That, in combination with the physical evidence, is what led us to the conclusions that we made. It’s not that too often you see a security system like this on a house.”
Police said the owner of the house, Christopher A. Johnson, installed the surveillance system for home security.
“Johnson stated he had video surveillance set up around the property, covering the house from every angle and hooked up to a feed in the basement,” a police report said.
Despite heavy damage from the fire to the upper stories, surveillance videos were found in the basement undamaged.
Patrolman Patrick Greeno reported that some tenants who had escaped from the fire told him they had expressed concerns about the manner in which downstairs tenants were putting out cigarettes on the porch. They said the tenants were placing cigarettes in a dish of water without knowing if they were fully extinguished.
A neighbor interviewed by police said the fire really got going when a propane fuel tank for a grill on the second or third story porch exploded like a bomb.
The only injuries resulting from the fire involved two firefighters, said Acting Woonsocket Fire Chief Timothy Walsh. One suffered a leg injury when a staircase collapsed beneath him while searching the residence for possible victims. He was admitted to Landmark Medical Center overnight, Walsh said, but he wouldn’t identify the firefighter or elaborate on the extent of his injuries, citing medical privacy.
A second firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion. A police report also said a firefighter named Joseph Glaude had to rest on the sidewalk for a few moments because his pacemaker stopped working.
The American Red Cross said it was providing emergency shelter and other types of assistance to 18 people – 10 adults and eight children – in several families who were displaced from three apartments in the building, erected in 1900, according to city records.
WLNE-TV reported that some of the tenants were routed by neighbors who entered the building before the fire became impenetrable.
"I figured I had a little bit of time to get in there and get people out," said Michael Ptaszk was quoted as saying.
Walsh said first responders, arriving just minutes after the fire was reported from the Providence Street station, encountered tenants jumping out of windows.
He said firefighters bravely entered the building and embarked on “an aggressive search” for more possible victims as the fire continued to gain momentum.
“They should be commended for their work and heroic efforts to reach other victims,” said Walsh.
Walsh said numerous departments from surrounding communities arrived to supply the Woonsocket Fire Department with mutual aid. The last firefighters did not leave the scene until about seven hours after the fire was reported.
“First responders coming from Providence Street arrived to find three floors of the fully involved on the exterior and interior of the building,” said Walsh. “For a late Sunday morning fire, that’s very unusual. It progressed quickly.”
Investigators say the South Main Street fire was the third since mid-summer in which the cause has been linked to careless smoking, including one on Dulude Avenue in August that resulted in the death of a 48-year-old man.
The string of fires linked to careless disposal of cigarettes has the fire department contemplating a public statement about the fire-risk associated with smoking, said Walsh.
The cause of the fire was investigated jointly by the state fire marshal’s office, the Woonsocket Fire Department and the police department’s Bureau of Criminal Identification, officials said.
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