EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 23, 2008

Ferocious fire takes out a city block; investigators say cause is suspicious

By Courtney Paquette and J.J. Huggins

LAWRENCE — Almost an entire city block was taken out by a suspicious, roaring blaze that started in a nightclub under renovation at the corner of Market and Parker streets about 2:30 this morning.

At least 14 close-knit buildings were ravaged by flames, sending about 200 residents of 26 apartments into the streets in pajamas, bathrobes and wrapped in blankets.

One person was taken to the hospital with unknown injuries, but those injuries were not believed to be serious. Mayor Michael Sullivan said as many as 380 were affected by the fire this morning.

"The quick response, that's what really saved lives," Sullivan said.

Fire Chief Peter Takvorian described it as the biggest fire to hit the city since an explosion torched the 29-acre Malden Mills factory complex in 1995, injuring 27 people.

State Fire Marshal Steven Coan was on scene this morning and said it was too early to say what the cause of the fire may be, but did describe the blaze as "suspicious."

Also on scene were investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Gov. Deval Patrick was expected to tour the site this morning.

Where it started.

Takvorian said the interior of the nightclub, formerly known as Millennium, had been gutted and was just a large open space. The open building at 44 Parker St., coupled with the wind, created a fire storm across the block, Takvorian said.

"It was like a matchstick," said city Building Inspector Gregory Arvanitis.

Geraldo Torres, 45, of Methuen bought the building for about $250,000 and started renovating it about two months ago. He said he planned to put in a restaurant and bar, with either a Mexican or Italian theme. He and his wife Nereida Trempe had been doing much of the work and had already spent about $300,000 on the project.

However, he did not have insurance on the building.

"We made a mistake. We started renovating before getting insurance," Torres said.

As he surveyed the scene, Torres fought back tears when asked what he was going to do next. "I don't know. We lost everything, my friend. All my hard work is in there. I don't know."

The last time Torres and his wife were in the building was about 7 p.m. on Saturday. They've been working on the building on a regular basis from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. They don't know how the fire started.

Torres said that when they leave every night, they turn off all the power. Looking at the scene this morning, he couldn't believe the devastation.

"There's no way the fire can start there," he said, because the power is turned off every night.

Frigid weather, intense flames

With temperatures hovering around 12 degrees and a windchill making it feel colder than zero, firefighters had to battle freezing water valves but only one frozen hydrant.

But with the ice, there was fire — flames so hot it melted one side of a fire truck. Takvorian said firefighters turned the hose on Engine 9 at the corner of Parker (Route 114) and Springfield streets to cool it down.

Water running from the site turned the roads into skating rinks. Thick ice formed on firefighters and their clothing as they tried to knock down the fire.

"I stayed warm because I was close to the fire — there was plenty of it to go around," Takvorian said.

Another problem was burning embers flying in the arctic winds, landing as far as quarter-mile away on Farnum Street. At 5:15 this morning, Takvorian said he was concerned about homes on Springfield Street and repositioned trucks to that area.

First on the scene

"It was like something out of a horror movie," said Officer Robert Moody, the first patrolman on the scene.

Moody was flagged down by 2:30 a.m. by workers in an ambulance just down the street. When Moody arrived, he found one building engulfed. The fire quickly spread throughout buildings located on the corner, including several multifamily homes. Two buildings were commercial buildings, and they were completely destroyed.

Takvorian said one of his deputies arrived on scene just as the fire broke out and found two buildings on fire. He realized his car was too close and by the time he backed up his car the fire had spread to five buildings. Takvorian said buildings were only six to eight feet apart.

As many as seven multifamily homes were on fire about 4 this morning, said Lawrence Police Sgt. John Duschame, the second officer on the scene. He and his colleagues ran door-to-door on Market Street, getting to homes just before the fire started to make its way down the block. They had to force some of the doors open to alert sleeping residents inside.

"Everybody was in their pajamas and socks," said Duschame, who has been a police officer in Lawrence for 15 years. "I was fast moving. It was the biggest fire I've seen since Malden Mills."

The evacuees and their loss

Evacuees were moved to a makeshift Red Cross shelter at nearby Jackson Lumber until a permanent shelter could be found.

Evacuees were moved from their homes down the street to a Red Cross truck set up at Jackson Lumber. Other evacuees were moved in city buses to the Cor Unum Meal Center, only a half a mile from the blaze. They waited there until the Red Cross opened up a permanent shelter at South Lawrence East Middle School.

At 5 a.m., the flames had jumped to a tenth building. By 6 a.m, there were 14 buildings on fire as emergency workers fought to save one multiunit home on the block.

One of those buildings housed nine mentally disabled people. They were all evacuated safely and taken to the Red Cross shelter. Also consumed were three homes built by Habitat for Humanity.

Paul Reddick owns Lawrence Pumps, a business that employees 130 people, right next door to the fire. His building was not affected and many of employees showed up to work today but he sent them home. His company donated the land for the Habitat homes and described it as "heartbreaking."

Firefighters were brought in from 12 communities including Salem, N.H., Tewksbury, Chelmsford, Georgetown, Reading, Andover and Middleton.

Several roads including Route 114 were shut down in the area throughout the morning.

Investigators were talking to one witness who was stopped at a red light at the corner of Market and Parker streets about 2 this morning. She told investigators she heard a "popping noise" like gunshots and saw the tarps on top of scaffolding blowing. She did not see flames or any one leaving the building.

Arvanitis said that he stopped by the site on Friday and that nothing looked suspicious.

"We were just in here on Friday, everything looked really good," Arvanitis said.

Salem, N.H. firefighter Kevin Blais, who had been trying to save a home on Market Street since 2:45 a.m., arrived at a station set up for firefighters and police to get food and water around 6:30 a.m. with his gloves coated in ice. Blais had to slam his jacket on the cement to break the ice that froze it solid.

"I wish that it would be over," he said.

Staff writers Courtney Paquette and J.J. Huggins contributed to this report.