EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 14, 2013

Overloaded outlet blamed for fire in 2-family home

By Jill Harmacinski

---- — LAWRENCE — Four small appliances, including a microwave and mini-refrigerator, were plugged into an outlet near a chimney causing a fire that destroyed a multi-family home and forced a dozen occupants into the bitter cold, fire officials said yesterday.

The fire broke out accidentally around 2:15 p.m Thursday in a first-floor apartment at 52 Monmouth St. in the city’s Back Bay neighborhood. Once the fire ignited, flames quickly jumped to the upper floors of the 21/2-story building, Fire Chief Jack Bergeron said.

“It was an easy path for the fire to progress,” he explained.

The home will have to be torn down, said Bergeron, who estimated damage at $300,000. Tenants living there lost everything, including their artificial Christmas trees and presents. A pet cat, Itchy, also perished.

Built in 1910, the wood-framed building, split into two apartments, was constructed with a so-called balloon-frame structure. This building style, a dominant one in the city of Lawrence, relies on long studs that run all the way from basement to roof without fire breaks. Once a fire starts, flames and smoke funnel through the walls, enabling a blaze to jet upward.

Bergeron noted with the exception of some newer neighborhoods in South Lawrence, the majority of single-family and multi-family homes in Lawrence are built with balloon construction.

Yesterday morning, Bergeron, a city engineer and a disinterested party met to survey the damage and determine if the house could be saved structurally. They determined “the building needs to come down,” Bergeron said. A city building inspector will write an order to owner Hassan Hussein of North Andover to raze the house. In the interim, provisions will have to be made on the property to keep it safe for neighbors during the winter weather, Bergeron said.

Bergeron said he did not know how many smoke detectors were in the home. However, he said he heard at least one device sounding “that sounded like a smoke detector” after firefighters arrived.

He said one apartment was on the first floor and another on the second floor with additional bedrooms on the floor above.

The property is categorized as two condominiums in city assessing records. The first floor unit, measuring 1,500-square-feet, is valued at $89,000. The upper unit, with 1,800-square-feet of living space, is valued at $101,900, according to city records.

The top floor was completely burned away. A storm door blew in the wind. A window-size air conditioning unit had fallen to the ground. Metal window frames were tossed into the driveway, which was frozen solid from the water firefighters sprayed to knock down the blaze. Approximately two-thirds of the house had beige vinyl siding, now curled off the building in burnt shards.

When firefighters arrived Thursday afternoon, there was heavy fire showing on the second and top floors. While no injuries were reported, firefighters did search the building for possible people trapped inside. Some tenants escaped and no one was inside as the fire progressed, however.

Firefighters eventually sounded an “all out” alert, pulling all firefighters out of the building and launching a completely exterior, defensive attack. While firefighters from Lawrence and several surrounding communities worked, police officers, including auxiliary officers, were stationed throughout the neighborhood, blocking and redirecting traffic.

It was 25 degrees outside and the area around the burning home quickly iced up. One tenant went to the hospital for smoke inhalation and another, after slipping on the ice.

The American Red Cross of Eastern Massachusetts provided immediate shelter and support to the families after the fire. Yesterday, volunteers with the local non-profit group “Heal Lawrence” were gathering information from tenants and their needs going forward.

Wayne Hayes, a Heal Lawrence volunteer, said the group immediately needs a list of Lawrence landlords with rental units, including section 8 housing, available. He asked such landlords to email him at HealLawrence@aol.com.

“We are trying to get all the information together now,” Hayes said.

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.

How to help A friend of first-floor tenant Adalcinda "Cindy" Gerena, who had five children and a grandchild living with her, has set up a fund to collect donations for the family. To make a donation, go to gofundme.com and search for "52 Monmouth St. fire -- help the family." Call Andreina Reyes at 978-918-2150 with any questions.