By Mark E. Vogler and Jill Harmacinski
---- — LAWRENCE — Kyle Gerena said he was barely out of the shower yesterday afternoon when he heard neighbors screaming frantically from outside of his first floor home at 52 Monmouth St., in the city’s Back Bay neighborhood.
Seconds later, he found out his home was on fire and soon bolted for the second floor porch, only partially dressed, to make sure his upstairs neighbors had gotten out of their apartment where flames were devouring the second and third floors.
“Some guy gave me some shoes because I was barefoot,” Gerena, 20, said last night, as he stood shivering and bundled up in a fleece blanket near the Red Cross van. “I was shirtless too, and another neighbor gave me a sweater to wear. All I got right now is what’s on me.”
The fire broke out at about 2 p.m. yesterday in the 2 1/2-story, wooden-framed house at the corner of Monmouth and Buswell streets. Within 15 minutes, the Fire Department sounded a third alarm, drawing mutual aid from Lowell, Methuen and North Andover.
It took about an hour for firefighters to get the fire under control. Twelve people in two families — seven on the first floor and five on the second floor — were left homeless by the blaze. Lawrence Fire Chief Jack Bergeron said the building was gutted, probably beyond repair, and estimated the fire damage and loss of personal items was “at least $300,000.” Both families also lost their artificial Christmas trees and many of their Christmas presents.
Bergeron said he was relieved that early reports of tenants being trapped inside the building turned out to be false.
The chief said a major challenge to fighting the fire in the century-old home, was its balloon-frame structure that made the blaze a hard one to knock down. “Balloon construction” is a common building technique in houses that age. Long studs run all the way from the basement to the roof without fire breaks, funneling fire and smoke through the walls, enabling flames to move quickly from floor to floor.
“With an old building like that, there a lot of concealed spaces where the fire can hide, and it can go up from the basement to the attic,” the chief said.
It appeared the origin of the fire was somewhere on the second and third floor. Investigators from the State Fire Marshal’s Office were at the scene investigating last night, and haven’t released a cause.
“When we got there, there was heavy fire on the second and third floors,” Lawrence Fire Department Capt. Frank Martin said. “People were telling us there was a kid trapped on the second floor and another kid trapped on the third floor. So, we had to get crews to get them out. We didn’t find out till later that they were out. We had limited to time to make an interior attack. The guys did a good job at looking for people who were supposedly trapped, but weren’t there.”
Then the roof caved in, the fire blew out of the building and created an exposure problem for two adjacent homes, one at 42-44 Monmouth and another at 24-26 Buswell St., where the heat melted the vinyl siding on the building.
“Once I saw (the roof) caving in, I evacuated the building. We could see the conditions rapidly deteriorating. That’s when I ordered everybody out and we went into defensive mode,” Martin said.
Police officers, including auxiliary officers, were stationed throughout the neighborhood, blocking and redirecting traffic while firefighters worked, spraying the blaze from above and below.
Fire officials reported that one of the tenants was taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation and another for slipping on the ice. With the temperature at 25 degrees at the outset of the fire and dropping, water began to freeze on the street and sidewalk, creating treacherous conditions. Public Works trucks were called in to sand the area to prevent firefighters from slipping and falling, however ladder rungs on the fire truckers were caked with ice, as were many firefighter’s jackets.
Martin said getting tenants out of the burning house also caused concerns for fire officials.
“Some of the tenants were trying to go back in and we had to get them out of there and look for people at the same time,” Martin said.
City inspector Greg Arvanitis called the building “uninhabitable.”
“The second floor and attic are totally demolished,” Arvanitis said.
“As it is, nobody can live in there right now. I may call a board of survey, determine whether or not it should be knocked down,” he said.
Such a board involves the fire chief, the city engineer and a disinterested party.
Arvanitis said he was unaware of any past problems with the building’s owner, Hassan Hussein.
But Gerena and other tenants interviewed at the fire scene said their landlord had neglected to keep an operable smoke detector in the building.
“The landlord had no fire alarms or smoke detectors working,” Gerena said. “He never did anything about it. He didn’t care.”
Bergeron said he was unaware of the complaints. He stressed tenants with similar concerns should be contacting the Fire Department or the city’s Department of Inspectional Services to lodge a complaint.
“We can take action against the owner to bring things up to code if they’re not cooperative,” Bergeron said. “This time of year, people are having issues with their heat. Again, if they’re not getting cooperation from their landlord, they should contact Inspectional Services or the Fire Department.”
The American Red Cross of Eastern Massachusetts is providing emergency shelter, in this case a hotel stay, to all residents at 52 Monmouth St. They are also providing recovery funds for food, clothing and winter coats, according to spokeswoman Kat Powers.
Red Cross workers also provided blankets on scene for those who ran out of the building into freezing temperatures.
“We are providing comfort kits which are gender-specific toiletries,” Powers said.
Gerena and his stepbrother, Darren Castillo, 20, both members of Lawrence High’s 2011 championship wrestling team, lamented the loss of plaques and other recognition from the team that won the Merrimack Valley Conference title in what was the school’s greatest season ever.
“We lost a lot of memories in that fire,” said Castillo, a 2011 Lawrence High graduate, who was headed to class at Northern Essex Community College when the fire broke out.
“It’s going to be hard to replace all the things we had. We were state champs,” he said.
Gerena worried about the loss of their cat, Itchy, who is presumed dead.
“We tried catching the cat, but she ran and hid,” said Gerena, a 2012 Lawrence High graduate.
Their mother, Adalcinda Gerena, 39, lived in the apartment with five children and a grandchild. She went to the hospital for treatment of respiratory problems, according to relatives at the scene.
Rosa Reyosa, 15, a sophomore at Central High School, was at track practice when her coach pulled her out yesterday. That’s when she learned her second floor apartment was on fire.
Fortunately, nobody was home. Rosa said her cat, Tigre was let out earlier in the day and she worried that he might be lost when he returns to a burned out home. But, she hope that somebody would bring the year-old, orange, short-haired feline to a local animal shelter.
Firefighter Juan “Manny” Gonzalez, of ladder 5, said he expected things to turn out OK for both affected families.
“The beautiful thing about our community is the people,” said Gonzalez, who with Wayne Hayes are leaders of “Heal Lawrence.”
“Somebody will step forward and find a way to help the folks who are homeless tonight. Some how, we will try to reach out to these people,” he said.