By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — Investigators believe the cause of a fire that heavily damaged a South Main Street home early yesterday is suspicious, according to police.
They also said a neighbor who noticed the fire and flagged down a police cruiser may have saved the life of a woman who was the last person to get out of the building.
The fire broke out sometime after midnight in a two-and-a-half story apartment building at 471 S. Main St., diagonally across the street from the Bradford Fire Station. The blaze sent the building’s occupants fleeing into the cold.
Late yesterday morning, Fire Chief Richard Borden said investigators with the Haverhill Police and Fire Departments along with state police investigators assigned to the state fire marshal’s office were at the scene searching for clues to the blaze.
Later that afternoon, police said arson investigators were considering the cause of the fire to be suspicious, and that the investigation was continuing.
Jason Madigan, 24, of Laurel Avenue told The Eagle-Tribune that friends had just dropped him off at home shortly after 1:30 a.m. when he heard popping noises coming from somewhere nearby. He realized the noises were caused by flames in a building several doors away. He said he flagged down a passing police cruiser, and he and an officer ran to the front door of the building.
“One of the girls had gotten out the back and said there was someone still inside,’’ Madigan said.
Police Patrolman Nicole Donnelly wrote in her report that she was on patrol on South Main Street when she was flagged down by Madigan, who told her the house was on fire. Donnelly called in the fire to the station and raced to the scene. She found that several people had already escaped the building. The back entrance was engulfed in flames so she and Madigan went to the front of the house, where the last occupant was able to flee.
Madigan said the female officer told him to kick in the front door. When he did, he went inside the smoky building and a woman who appeared to be in her mid-20s ran down a set of stairs and out of the building, he said.
She was the last of four young women to escape the burning building, Madigan said.
“His quick action may have saved somebody’s life,” police Deputy Chief Donald Thompson said of Madigan.
Prior to the investigation into the blaze, Madigan said he heard talk at the scene about a dryer possibly being the cause of the fire. Yesterday, the owner of the building, Michael Harris, disputed Madigan’s remarks and said investigators were still looking into the cause.
According to the City Assessor’s office, in August, the property at 471 S. Main St. was transferred in name only from Michael Harris to Recovery Realty Trust, with Harris as trustee. The two-family dwelling is assessed at $230,100 and was built in 1858.
Harris operates Starting Over Sober, an organization based in Bradford and Haverhill that offers a structured living environment and intensive education to people who are recovering from drug or alcohol abuse. It is unclear whether the building where the fire happened is part of the organization.
As Haverhill firefighters battled the blaze, the Fire Department called in mutual aid from other communities. The firefighters who responded to that call covered Haverhill’s fire stations while Haverhill firefighters worked at the scene of the blaze.
Six Fire Department vehicles, including the ladder truck, were at the scene. At 2:30 a.m., it appeared the fire was under control, although smoke was still coming from the building.
Borden said that because of the significant fire damage to the building, it will have to be evaluated carefully to determine what actions will need to be taken.
“It would need to be remodeled, but we’ll evaluate it structurally after the investigation,” Borden said.