EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 9, 2014

'We're going to have to restart our lives'

Victims of Forest Acres fire salvage what they can

By Mike LaBella
mlabella@eagletribune.com

---- — HAVERHILL — The lives of dozens of people, from a 7-month-old boy to an 82-year-old man, are in disarray after the fire that ripped through their Forest Acres apartment building.

And still, they don’t know what caused the blaze.

Yesterday, fire investigators combed the scene of Wednesday’s fire at 21-23 Forest Acres Drive, part of the large Forest Acres apartment complex in the city’s Bradford section.

David Van Dam, Mayor James Fiorentini’s chief of staff, said public safety officials would not make any comment about the cause of the fire until their investigation is complete, which could be as early as today. Van Dam said officials would also not comment on whether the building’s smoke alarms were working at the time of the fire.

Several residents of the building said they did not hear any alarms go off, and that they were alerted to the fire when they heard yelling and their neighbors came knocking on apartment doors.

City Building Inspector Richard Osborne said the right side of the building was so heavily damaged that it will have to be demolished. He said that after the investigation into the fire is completed, he expects the mayor will sign an emergency demolition order.

Osborne said the left side of the building, which received mostly smoke damage, is still being evaluated and that utilities must be inspected along with damaged sections of the roof.

“They’ll also have to address hazardous waste,” Osborne said of the Forest Acres management.

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.

Those people included 82-year-old Donald Sauvan, who has lived in the same second-floor apartment for 60 years. His apartment is on the left side of the building, which was mostly untouched by flames but did receive smoke and water damage.

Sauvan said he had to rush out of his apartment without his oxygen tank after neighbors banged on his door to alert him to the fire.

“I went to my girlfriend’s house and we watched the ball game, then went to bed,” Sauvan said of what happened after the fire. “I needed a tank that night, but somehow I got through it.”

Sauvan returned to the damaged apartment building yesterday and firefighters escorted him inside, where he retrieved medical supplies and prescription medications.

“I got my insulin and my oxygen tanks,” he said.

“The Red Cross did a really good job,” he said. “They gave me a debit card for groceries, which I need to go shopping for.”

Hours after the fire, Matthew Stamos returned to the apartment he lives in with his girlfriend Amanda Feind and their 7-month-old son, Liam. Firefighters escorted Stamos inside. Using a flashlight, he found two of their three cats. He was unable to remove them from the unit when he had to evacuate on Wednesday after smelling smoke.

Feind said they returned to the apartment yesterday morning and found their third cat. She said all three cats got health checks at Bulger Animal Hospital in North Andover, and, as of yesterday, only one cat needed to be held for observation, but was expected to make a full recovery.

“Bulger is awesome,” Feind said. “They told us that because of the fire, they weren’t going to charge us.”

Feind was happy to have her cats back, but worried about what she and Stamos lost after a section of their building’s roof caved in onto their bed.

“Our bedroom is ruined and so is Liam’s,” Feind said. “We hope to be able to salvage some of his clothes and maybe some kitchen appliances, but all of our furniture suffered smoke damage. I did manage to find my cell phone, which was not damaged.”

Jessica Mangion, 35, lives in the second-floor left side apartment with her children, a 4-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 11 and 15. She was at work and her children were at school when she heard about the fire.

“I just got my cat, Zoe,” Mangion said yesterday morning. “We found her hiding under a bed. She was so panicked that she scratched me.”

Mangion said her 11-year-old son is traumatized.

Mangion said she wanted to thank the Red Cross for the kindness they showed to her children, especially her daughter, who was worried about her teddy bears.

“They gave her a Mickey Mouse stuffed animal and she was thrilled,” Mangion said. “The Red Cross offered us a hotel room and gave all the residents debit cards based on family size, as well as bags of toiletries. They were amazing. It makes me want to volunteer with them.”

Melissa Pienta, 30, and her boyfriend, Justin Gadd, 28, lived in a first-floor right side apartment with their 4-year-old son, Dakota. They said they lost everything because flames destroyed the apartment. They were at work at the time and their son was at his grandfather’s house.

“Dakota’s birthday was April 7 and we still had unopened toys,” Pienta said. “Everything is gone, including a new flat screen TV we got for Christmas and a brand new laptop computer.”

“Clothing, family photos, it’s all gone,” she said.

Pienta and Gadd said they both lost sports trophies, including her high school softball trophies and newspaper clippings, and his amateur championship powerlifting trophies. Gadd also lost two new salt water spinning reels and two rods he uses to fish on Plum Island.

Gadd said his son also lost Boston Bruins novelty items he got at a playoff game they took him to for his birthday, as well as a Chinese fighting fish named “Iron Man” that was in a fish bowl in his bedroom.

“Firefighters told us the basement was like a swimming pool,” Gadd said. “That’s where all our trophies were.”

Firefighters who escorted residents in and out of their apartments yesterday morning got a special treat when Marianne Patch showed up with a plate of chocolate chip cookies. Her son, his girlfriend and their infant child were displaced by the fire.

“They (firefighters) deserve a treat after fighting Wednesday’s fire,” Patch said.

“The Red Cross was fantastic as well. They really took care of my son and his family. It’s an organization people should donate to.”

Nicholas Fortin and his girlfriend, Shawna Strangman, returned to the burned-out building yesterday in hopes of retrieving something, anything, from the rubble. They lost their cat, “Lick ‘ems” during the fire. The animal was still in the apartment when Strangman’s future-sister-in-law, Christina Simoes, was forced to jump from a rear second-floor patio to the ground below with her 18-month-old son, Camron, in her arms.

Fortin and Strangman were out shopping at the time.

“Christina said the alarms didn’t go off,” Strangman said. “She didn’t have time to grab anything other than her son.”

“No one has ever come to check our carbon monoxide detectors or smoke alarms,” Strangman added.

“Even when they were putting out the fire, no alarms were heard,” Fortin said.

Strangman said the Red Cross provided her with two nights at a hotel, along with debit cards to buy clothes and food.

“We’re going to have to restart our lives and look for another apartment,” she said.

Strangman’s 15-year-old sister, Serina Strangman, said she lost more than $2,000 in Justin Bieber memorabilia and DVDs, CDs, books, shirts, blankets, pillows and perfumes.

“It took me years to collect and now it’s all gone,” she said.

Fortin lost 24 boxes of comic books, as well as 100 boxes of baseball cards and other sports cards, and a pair of boxing gloves and a book autographed by former pro boxer Micky Ward of Lowell.

“We lost everything,” Fortin said.