EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 30, 2014

Blaze destroys 3-family home, leaves 15 homeless

Second devastating fire in neighborhood in 12 months

By Mark E. Vogler
mvogler@eagletribune.com

---- — LAWRENCE — For the second time in barely more than a year, a 3-alarm fire gutted the home of somebody close to Jose Reyes.

On Jan. 19 of last year, an early morning fire quickly destroyed the two-story home of Reyes' future mother-in-law Toni Ayala, at 70-72 Berkeley St.

About 4 p.m., fire broke out around the corner in the three-decker at 32 Hall St., owned by Reyes' mother, Lillian Ramos.

"My sister came over the house screaming that the house was on fire," said Reyes, who now lives in the house that was rebuilt last year after burning to the ground.

"I ran through all the apartments to make sure everybody was out. Nobody, except for the family dog, was inside the house," he said.

Three families totaling 15 residents were displaced by the smoky, pesky fire that ravaged 32 Hall St. Reyes' sister, who lived on the third floor, was being treated at the hospital for smoke inhalation. Firefighters estimated there was $275,000 in damage.

City firefighters were still at the scene at 9 last night, pouring water on what was left of the 94-year-old, wood-framed home located in the north central part of the city, not far from the Methuen line.

Deputy Fire Chief Brian Murphy said that the cause of the fire is undetermined at this time.

Lawrence's acting Fire Chief John Marsh said the task of extinguishing the fire was difficult because of the building's balloon-frame structure. “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.

"When it's a fire in the walls, the race is on," Marsh said in an interview at the fire scene last night.

"You wind up breaking down the walls to chase after the fire. It doesn't take long for it to spread from the basement all the way up to the roof. The initial report was there was smoke in the wall on the first floor. I went to the second floor and opened the bathroom door, and I was met with a wall of fire," the chief said.

With temperatures dipping to the low 20s, the intersection of Hall and Berkeley streets became patches of ice — which made the pavement hazardous to pedestrians walking by. Firefighters initially had some problems with getting water from some of the hydrants, but Marsh said they were able to tap into other hydrants in the area without any difficulty.

"If there's a plus to any of this, there were no reports of serious injury and there weren't any exposures," Marsh said, referring to the possibility of fire spreading to other buildings in the neighborhood.

The American Red Cross had its emergency wagon and volunteers at the scene last night, assisting the people who were left homeless. Volunteers provided them with emergency shelter at a local hotel, funds for food and clothing and warm winter garments. They also provided hot food and beverages to first responders.

Mayor Daniel Rivera, who had just flown in from Washington, D.C. after attending the State of the Union address, and City Councilor Sandy Almonte of District A, rushed to the scene to make sure that the victims of yesterday's fire were getting help.

Sharon Cora, a concerned resident, made a food run for the firefighters and displaced families.

"I'm just a resident of Lawrence trying to help out," said Cora, who brought 10 pizzas, two Boxes of Joe, 10 hot chocolates, a dozen donuts and 30 cheeseburgers to the scene, with her son D.J.

Several area fire departments — including Methuen, Andover, Lowell, North Andover, Dracut and Salem, N.H. helped at the scene or provided station coverage.