By Mark E. Vogler
---- — LAWRENCE – Second-floor residents of the two-family home at 9 Lafayette Ave. saw flames flare from their artificial Christmas tree late Friday night, just before they escaped with their lives as a fire erupted and ravaged the 88-year-old house.
“Some of the occupants told our investigators that they did see the fire in the tree,” Lawrence Fire Chief Jack Bergeron said yesterday. “It could have been the wiring in the tree itself. But we don’t know and it’s going to be impossible to determine whether the fire started in the tree or in an extension chord to the tree. It’s probably going to go down as ‘undetermined,’ because the fire pretty much destroyed any evidence that remained. There wasn’t too much left.”
The three-alarm blaze that broke out just minutes before 11 Friday night and continued to burn into early yesterday morning left 17 people homeless, including the 11 residents of 9 Lafayette Ave. Another six residents of the house at 13-15 Lafayette Ave. were left temporarily homeless because fire damaged the roof and windows and burned into the house itself.
Overall, the fire caused an estimated $375,000 in property damage to five buildings at the corner of Lafayette and Pere Marquette avenues – including $200,000 to the two-and-half story wood frame structure that was destroyed, according to Deputy Fire Chief John McInnis. Also destroyed were two cars parked in the driveway of the burned-out structure.
While Bergeron said any clues to the cause of the fire were likely destroyed in the inferno, the department’s fire investigators have ruled out arson.
“There does not appear to be any reason to suspect malicious intent on anybody’s part,” the chief said. Firefighters had the blaze under control by about 1 a.m. yesterday, and maintained an overnight fire watch, according to McInnis . Miraculously, everyone got out safely and there were no major injuries reported. Fire officials said that nine people taken to the hospital were released by 2 or 3 a.m. yesterday.
“They were in a state of shock – like terror – from what they experienced,” Bergeron said. “But none sustained real injury as far as we know, nothing that caused any lasting injury.”
Officials were initially concerned about possible smoke inhalation, particularly for children whose faces were covered with soot and were coughing after leaving the burning building Friday night.
They were also worried about some of the residents who had to jump out of the building to escape. One woman was seen jumping from a second-floor window, McInnis said, while others leaped out of first-floor windows. Stephen Masuk, who lives with his wife and father at 5 Lafayette Ave., next door to the burned building, was back in his house yesterday despite the extensive melting to the siding of his house and damage to three windows, which will have to be replaced.
“I was sleeping when the dog started barking and woke my wife,” Masuk said. “She woke me up. I grabbed my father and we got out of the house. People were jumping out the first floor windows next door.”
Eleven people from 9 Lafayette Ave. were receiving emergency shelter at a local hotel and were provided emergency clothing – including winter coats – and funds for food, according to Kat Powers, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross of Eastern Massachusetts. Six residents from 13-15 Lafayette Ave. decided to stay with friends yesterday. They were accepting emergency funds for food, Powers said.
“All occupants of these addresses (total of 17 persons at this time) have been given comfort kits, which includes toiletries like razors and toothbrushes,” Powers said.
“We will be following up with all 17 people to make sure they have what they need to start their recovery after this disaster, once everyone has had a good night’s sleep,” she said.
Alex Ballester, 41, who recently moved into the two-family home at 17-19 Lafayette, said he worried that the fire was going to reach his home after watching the damage it caused to the house next door at 13-15 Lafayette Ave.
“We just moved here a week ago and it looked like it was going to reach us,” Ballester said. “I evacuated my family out of the house. It was amazing how fast the fire was moving and how much damage it caused, even causing the siding on the houses across the street to melt.”
Masuk said the fire department did an “awesome job.”
“The firefighters were excellent,” he said. “They contained it to the one house and kept it from burning our house,” he said. Bergeron agreed.
“They did an excellent job, considering the circumstances they encountered when they got on the scene, to keep the fire from growing and spreading any more,” he said. “There is always the chance of the fire spreading to other buildings when you have a situation like we encountered. Thankfully, we had sufficient water to keep it to that one building, and minor damage to the building on the left.”
Despite the huge walls of fire that already engulfed the house by the time the first crews responded, the firefighters were able to conduct a quick search on the first and second floors to determine that everyone was out.
“The part of the building that’s still intact in the rear portion has a stairway you can walk up,” Bergeron said. “That’s where the crews went in. They were able to make entry into the first and second floor to make a quick search.”
Even without knowing the exact cause of Friday’s fire, Bergeron highlighted concerns about the potential hazards of overloading extension chords during the holiday season.
“Because of their small size, they can heat up like the wire inside of a toaster before they trip a circuit breaker or fuse,” the chief said. “People need to be extremely careful with extension cords, especially this time of year.”
The chief said the fire also generated concerns about having operational smoke detectors. It’s not clear whether the smoke detectors were working at 9 Lafayette Ave. Masuk was just happy he had his dog Bella to alert him to the fire next door. “We rescued her from an animal shelter and she rescued us last night,” he said.