EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 8, 2014

'A total inferno'

Woman, baby jump to safety as fire engulfs building

By Mike LaBella
mlabella@eagletribune.com

---- — HAVERHILL — A woman who jumped from the second floor of the burning Forest Acres apartment building with a baby in her arms yesterday has undergone surgery for non-life threatening injuries, police said.

They said the child did not suffer serious injuries when the woman jumped during yesterday afternoon’s three-alarm fire, which destroyed most of the building and drew firefighters from communities throughout the region.

Police would not release the names of the woman and child last night. Police said depending on the woman’s condition today after surgery in a Boston hospital, they might release the identities.

Police Deputy Chief Donald Thompson said the woman jumped from a second-story patio deck at the rear of the burning building onto the grassy ground below. He said that when police and firefighters arrived at the scene, they were directed to the woman by onlookers. The rescue workers carried the victims to an ambulance to be taken to Lawrence General Hospital.

The fire became the focus of the region, with firefighters from several communities responding, crowds of tenants and others gathering to watch the flames rip through the building and smoke reported by people living miles away.

‘A total inferno’

The Red Cross was on the scene to help find housing for residents left homeless and offer them other forms of assistance, including food and clothing, as well as evaluate their physical and mental health needs.

Red Cross officials said displaced residents received money for food, clothing and shoes. Some of the residents will be staying with friends or relatives, they said.

Those who have no place to go will stay at a hotel, the Red Cross said. Red Cross volunteers served water, snacks and sandwiches to more than 100 people, including first responders, residents and members of the media.

Malcolm Anderson of 23D Forest Acres Drive was among those forced from their apartments. A few minutes after 6 p.m., he said he wasn’t sure where he was going to stay last night.

He described the blaze as “a total inferno,” with flames shooting 15 feet into the air.

Fire Chief Richard Borden said the state police were being called in to assist in investigating the cause of the blaze. He said city Building Inspector Richard Osborne was also called in to help determine the condition of the building.

As of 6:25 p.m. yesterday, there were 409 homes and businesses without power in the Forest Acres apartments area.

Power was expected to be restored by 7 p.m. yesterday, according to National Grid. But by 7:41 p.m., there were still 42 customers affected by the outage and power to those customers was expected to be restored by 9:30 p.m. The outage began shortly before 2 p.m.

Red Cross volunteers helped residents from 18 units. They said 20 units were affected by the fire, but two of those units were vacant.

A total of 46 people were forced from their apartments by the fire, said Deb Duxbury, program disaster manager for the Red Cross.

Brush fire brings more danger

News of the woman who jumped with the child spread as the building fire was brought under control about 2:30 p.m. by firefighters from several area communities.

But then a series of windblown brush fires across several acres broke out in a hilly area behind the building, forcing firefighters to scramble to protect nearby houses.

Even though the building fire was under control, heavy smoke continued to pour out of it. Almost half of the upper part of the right section of the building was gutted and the roof had collapsed. Fire officials said a fire wall between two connected apartment buildings, plus aggressive work by firefighters, kept flames from spreading from the burning structure to the adjoining one.

At 7 p.m., firefighters were still pouring water onto the burned-out section of the building. A river of water was rushing out of an exposed ground floor apartment and down Forest Acres Drive.

After the woman holding the baby jumped, all other tenants of the apartment building managed to get out safely and told a frightening tale of their homes going up in flames.

The fire broke out just after 1 p.m. in the 21-23 Forest Acres Drive building and soon attracted crowds of onlookers, including many tenants who escaped the burning building safely.

There are 20 apartments in the building, known as Building K, which is part of the larger Forest Acres apartments complex off Route 125 in the Bradford section of Haverhill, less than a mile from the North Andover line.

The complex has at least 19 buildings. The Forest Acres buildings have cedar shingles and wood framed roofs. Residents of Building K said the structure has 12 front-facing apartments (six on each side) and eight rear facing apartments (four on each side).

Tenants rush to escape flames

Residents said the fire moved so quickly and with so little notice that it forced them to abandon their apartments for their own safety. No one knew what sparked the blaze.

Amanda Feind, who lives in an apartment at the left side the building with her boyfriend, Matt Stamos, and their infant son, Liam, said they smelled smoke just after 1 p.m. while the baby was napping. She said that from her third-floor window she saw a man pull up in a sport utility vehicle and yell toward the building, “Everybody get out.’’ He was a Fire Department official.

Feind, 26, grabbed the baby and she and Stamos, 29, knocked on doors of other apartments. About 10 people ran out of the building and gathered in a crowd outside, she said. Feind said an elderly disabled man who uses an oxygen tank and lives in the apartment below hers was helped from the building by Trinity EMS ambulance company workers.

“I think everybody got out safely,’’ Feind said as she watched firefighters from two ladder trucks pour water on the roof and walls of the building in an effort to keep flames from spreading. She said her three cats were still in her apartment.

Stamos said he searched for the cats before leaving the building, but could not find them.

“I left the door open in hopes they would run out,” Stamos said. “I asked multiple firefighters to let me back in, but they said part of the building collapsed and it wasn’t safe.”

Feind said it looked as though her apartment might have received smoke and water damage. She was worried that baby items such as a car seat, crib, dresser and clothing might all be destroyed.

“Our main concern was for our baby’s safety,” Feind said.

Charlene Burrows of 25B Forest Acres Drive lives in a building a few hundred feet from the structure that burned.

“I just heard a lot of commotion,” she said.

She said a firefighter told her and other residents of her building that “we had to evacuate.” Her friend, Amy Delle Chiaie of 25A Forest Acres Drive, who lives across the hall from her, said, “I heard an ambulance.” She said she figured one of the residents had become ill and had to be taken to the hospital. Then she saw the smoke and heard firefighters and police officers ordering people to get out of their buildings.

“Make sure you mention that the Red Cross gave us water,” Burrows said.

Resident Kyle Fitzgerald was getting ready to head to his job at Haverhill Beef company when he heard people yelling inside his building.

“My next-door neighbor (Amanda Feind) knocked on my door and I grabbed my cat and my keys and raced outside,” he said.

Fitzgerald, 27, said that when he got outside, his neighbor Matt Stamos told him about his missing cats.

“I offered to help Matt go back in and get them but they (police) wouldn’t let us,” Fitzgerald said. “It was a super-fast moving fire and in a matter of minutes there were two floors engulfed in flames.”

Fitzgerald, along with Feind and Stamos, said she never heard any fire alarms go off, but did not know if the two sides of the building had fire alarm systems that were connected.

“I don’t know why there were no alarms, especially when you have something of this magnitude,” Fitzgerald said.

By 2 p.m., the flames had ripped through so much of the upper floors of the right side of the building that the walls were gone and all that remained were the beams and rapidly disintegrating sections of roof.

“Six years ago, I was living in an apartment in the side of the building that just caved in,” Fitzgerald said.

The burned building is on the road across from a strip mall just to the right of Academy Lanes plaza. Fire hoses that ran up Forest Acres Drive from Route 125 (South Main Street) prevented residents from driving along this stretch of driveway to either get to or leave their apartments.

Fire draws regional response

Firefighters from several area communities responded to the blaze.

The Lawrence Fire Department was sending mutual aid to Haverhill. Ladder trucks were being sent to the scene from the Georgetown Fire Department and Salem, N.H. Firefighters from Haverhill’s Rocks Village volunteer station were being called in as well. The Merrimac department sent a pumper truck and Amesbury firefighters also responded.

Several firefighters from those communities were sent to cover Haverhill fire stations.

Heavy smoke which could be seen miles away in other communities.

By commuter time yesterday afternoon, northbound traffic on Route 125 was backed up at least a mile.

A woman who said she is employed by the owner of the Forest Acres apartments told a reporter the company had no comment last night.

Reporter Paul Tennant contributed to this story.