EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 31, 2013

Three houses destroyed on Hancock Street; Malfunctioning hydrants hampered firefighting efforts

By Bill Kirk
bkirk@eagletribune.com

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LAWRENCE — A fast-moving fire possibly started by a burning couch in a narrow alley left two homes in ashes and a third barely standing yesterday. Meanwhile, efforts to douse the blaze were hampered by non-working hydrants or hydrants with poor water pressure, firefighters and witnesses said.

Nobody was injured but one dog and a bird perished.

The fire started just after 4 p.m. when thick, black smoke could be seen billowing from 112 Hancock St., in the middle of the three houses that were destroyed.

Jessica Guzman, 17, said she was in her bedroom on the third floor of the single-family house with the window open.

“I looked out and saw that the couches in the backyard were on fire,” she said. She ran next door, to 108-110 Hancock St., to tell her friends about the fire, because she thought the fire was heading toward their house.

“My phone doesn’t work so I had to run over there,” she said. “I ran out of the house and into my friend’s house.”

There, she found Jose Roman, 21, who was visiting with his family at 108-110 Hancock St.

They got everyone out of that house and ran to 114-116 Hancock St., where Guzman’s brother lived.

Luis Rodriguez, 33, who owns both 112 Hancock and the two-family at 114-116 Hancock St., was inside asleep as the fire started raging outside.

At first, Guzman and Roman pounded on the door, but realized that Rodriguez wouldn’t wake up.

“He’s a heavy sleeper,” Guzman said.

“I kicked the door down,” Ramos said. “I busted the door in and told him there was a fire.”

Added Guzman: “He came out in a blanket. He didn’t have any clothes.”

When firefighters arrived, she said she tried to get them to go into her house to save her dog, a 6-year-old Chihuahua named Bongo. But firefighters told her it was too dangerous and the dog is believed to have died.

Dep. Fire Chief John Marsh said firefighters were able to get inside 108-110 Hancock St. to retrieve an 8-foot tall bird-cage filled with parakeets. He said the cage was brought out the back of the house but was too big to be hoisted over the fence. The owner was able to retrieve the birds, he said.

Residents of the three homes said they were shocked about the lack of working hydrants.

Guzman and Roman agreed, saying that when firefighters first arrived they couldn’t do much because they couldn’t get water on the flames.

“They just looked and looked,” she said. “The fire was little when they first got here.”

At one point, the residents of 108-110 Hancock stood looking at what was left of their home, which was not much more than the front facade with a burned out shell in back.

After talking to investigators and a volunteer of the Red Cross, the family asked to remain anonymous, but expressed anger, frustration and sadness that their home was not saved. Two of the five adults who lived in the house said their home could have been saved if the fire hydrant near their home was working.

“Our house could have been saved! The firefighters could have saved our house,” said one of the residents. “They didn’t do enough.”

Another resident added, “I was sleeping and someone banged on the door and said, ‘Two houses next door are on fire. Get out of the house,’” he said. “I grabbed my son and my girlfriend and got out.”

Once outside, he saw the backyard in flames.

“All the dry leaves were on fire and it was spreading,” he said.

He grabbed a hose and tried to start throwing water on the house.

“But it was moving faster than what I did,” he said.

There were five adults and one child living in the home. The family’s dog was saved, but they lost a lovebird.

According to city assessor records, the property at 108-110 Hancock St. is owned by Jodi Caraballo.

Marsh said he was on another call on Jordan Street and was just clearing the scene when a firefighter in another truck noticed smoke in the rear-view mirror.

“He radioed that he could see black smoke, so we turned around and came over here,” he said. “We were here right away.”

However, he said, the fire was well underway when firefighters arrived.

“Flames were coming out the roof of the middle building,” he said. “A hole had burned through the roof and flames were coming out of it.”

It wasn’t long before it jumped to the house next door.

Meanwhile, firefighters quickly realized they were going to have water problems.

“A couple of the hydrants had no water,” he said. In fact, he said firefighters didn’t even bother trying to hook up to a brand-new hydrant right in front of the burning buildings on Hancock Street. “We tried it later and a little water came out,” he said.

Instead, firefighters called in pumper trucks from area fire departments which were able to tie into hydrants on Water Street and pump water up to the fire scene.

“That’s why we have all these out of town trucks,” he said. “We had to relay pumps.”

When asked why the hydrants weren’t working, he said he didn’t know and that they are supposed to be maintained by the water department.

However, he said, “If we had better water, we could have saved the third house.”

Instead, the fire jumped from 112 Hancock St. to the two houses on either side, which were just an arms’ length away from each other.

“It was too much too quick,” he said, adding that flying embers were igniting dry material in the back yards of the burning houses. “It’s amazing it got going so quickly.”

Meanwhile, a brush fire was reported about a block away, off Water Street. Firefighters from North Andover were called in to cover that fire. In addition, a car fire was also called in while firefighters were battling the fire on Hancock Street.

Fire crews from Methuen, Haverhill, Andover, North Andover, Lowell and Dracut were called in to aid Lawrence firefighters

Three families were affected by the fire — 7 adults and 2 children who resided in the three affected buildings. No people were injured.

The Red Cross is on scene assisting the victims and firefighters. No firefighters were injured.

Gretchen Putnam contributed to this story.