By Bill Kirk
---- — 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..
"There was heavy damage in the basement and walls in the rear section of all three floors," Murphy said. "Crews contained it all to the rear section of the house. It was a difficult battle but they did an excellent job."
The occupants of the building escaped and there were no reported injuries to residents or firefighters.
Kat Powers, communications director for the American Red Cross of Eastern Massachusetts, said volunteers were on scene throughout the incident assisting residents of the house.
She said the Red Cross is providing the three families who lived in the building help with shelter by paying for hotel stays, as well as providing funds for food. She said the families living there were able to get their clothes out, so the Red Cross didn't have to provide clothing. They did provide them with blankets to ward off the chill during the fire.
Murphy said the last firefighting crew had cleared the scene by 7 a.m. and the board-up crews arrived shortly after to secure the property. Later in the morning, firefighter crews returned to pick up some tools they'd left behind, when one of them spied smoke. They quickly doused a "hot-spot," according to Dep. Chief Daniel Kennedy.
The cause of the fire is accidental, Murphy said.
It doesn't appear that the house sustained widespread damage. Moreta said that since her mother bought the property four or five years ago they've done a lot of work, putting up new siding and refinishing floors.
She said the fire badly damaged all the bathrooms along the back wall of the property, as well as one adjoining room. Otherwise, the apartments are all in pretty good shape, she said.