LAWRENCE — Jennifer Moreta was worried about power outages after a violent thunderstorm swept through the Merrimack Valley Tuesday night when she lit a candle and put it on the back of the toilet in her basement bathroom.
Then she fell asleep on the couch. A light sleeper, Moreta, 20, who lives on the first floor of 221-223 East Haverhill St. with her mother, woke up around 12:30 a.m. when she smelled smoke.
"I fell asleep and I woke up to the fire," she said yesterday, while surveying the damage at the three-story multi-family building owned by her mother, Jacqueline Ortiz. She said the candle tipped over or fell onto the bathroom floor. When she saw the flames, she ran upstairs to tell her mother, who gave her a container of milk to throw on the flames. "She said that works better than water."
She tossed the milk onto the flames, which had spread to the walls, but it didn't put out much of the fire.
"It stopped it a little," she said. "But the walls and sink were on fire. There was too much smoke. I couldn't stop the fire. I had to get out."
She ran, screaming, back upstairs. It was her screams, she said, along beeping smoke detectors, that alerted the two families living in the second- and third-floor apartments that the building was on fire. In all, 13 people evacuated the building, including a number of children.
When firefighters arrived, they found smoke and flames billowing from a back, basement window.
Firefighters sounded a second alarm, at 12:52 a.m., and a third alarm at 1:02 a.m., bringing in mutual aid help from surrounding communities, including Methuen, Andover, North Andover and Lowell, said Dep. Fire Chief Brian Murphy.
Firefighters pulled down walls and ceilings throughout the rear interior of the building to get at the flames, which had gone up the rear wall and interior partitions, he said..